The public school where our children are attending is about a 3 mile bus ride from our home. Our first real shock coming to this area was that the public school asked us to sign a release form so that our 4th grader could be sent for his 'religious education' at the Lutheran church during the middle of the school day once a week. The alternative to sending him to church was to let him sit in a classroom by himself for an hour. I had to meditate on this situation for a day.
In the community where we lived before, this practice could not have been tolerated. There were people from all over the world with many different religions going to the public schools. In fact, when I told my friend in Silver Spring, Maryland, about the practice of sending the kids for a religious education during school hours, she said that it was completely against the law and that she as a member of the ACLU would call someone for me right away. I asked her not to.
Of course we are outsiders here, and a fight is not how we had planned to spend our time in the countryside. If we were living in any other country for a year, I would relax and observe the customs and religions of that area without any difficulty. I would never tell them how they ought to live their lives. I have attended ceremonies and rituals of Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish and other traditions. Somehow, although my husband and I are Christian (surprise to those of you who thought we were not), we found this particular proposition of a religious education in a Luthern church to be very threatening. I think that it was the real potential for my 4th grader to internalize religious doctrine that we hadn't been able to hear and consider first, and that we might not agree with. This disturbed us.
My experience with most religion is that it varies wildly depending on the particular culture of the area. There are enormous differences among Hindu and Buddhist sects and perhaps even more differences among Christian denominations such as Pentecostals, Baptists, Unitarians, Amish and Catholics. These Christian groups all trace their roots to the teachings of Christ, however, I have been in some churches that never mention Jesus Christ by name and others that have said you should not read the Bible for yourself lest ye be corrupted by the devil in your own mind.
Our solution was to submit a proposal that our son be released to me for that same hour once a week. When I went in to the school office, I could see that the principal was defensive and braced for trouble. He told me that 'release time' was all right because the children were being released to the church and the education was not happening on school property. He even said, "This is a very religious area." I chose not to argue about how demeaning a statement that was. Can you imagine a Buddhist who travels for years on pilgrimages, prostrating their body mile, after mile, after mile, with stones of prayers on their heads being considered not very religious? I think that the principal was relieved at our solution to have my son released to me, although he did say that I must submit a formal proposal to the school administrators of how I would spend my 4th grader's time, "Because, after all, it is the school day."
When I arrived at school to pick up my son, all of his classmates went in single file to the church looking back occasionally at my son and me as we went to the coffee shop, which was also the hair dresser's. My son said that it was a little embarrassing and that some of the kids were asking him about what we did together. The most difficult question to answer from my son was, "What are we?" What I told him is that we are 'Divinely Ecumenical.' We believe in everyone's right to practice their own religion so long as it is not hateful and does not harm others. We also believe strongly in the separation of religion and state.
Spending this time with my child was a luxury that I know most families could not have because most parents do not have a flexible work schedule, but I am very glad that we had that opportunity. I wish that same opportunity for every parent and child to explore their own beliefs and where they came from. Indeed our time together was a divine gift. We spent our time reading Gombrich's A Little History of the World which not only tells the history of the world, but it also gives a lovely introduction to every major religion as it comes up throughout history, from the Egyptian worship of Osiris and Isis to Islam. It was written in the early 20th century by a Jewish man living in pre-Nazi Germany. Mr. Gombrich was able to address each religion with great respect, pointing out the positive aspects of each. -A Wonderful read if you have the time.
At the coffee shop/hair dresser's, one of the beauticians came back to me one day and said, "We were talking about you the other day." That was not much of a surprise, considereing it was the only hairdresser's or coffee shop in a very small town and we were having our lessons in public. She continued, "We were wondering why it is that we are the only school in the area that sends our children to release time?" I didn't have an answer for her.
I am really not opposed to religious education. In fact, I think that it is necessary in order to make sense of the world. I only hope that it is well balanced and in historical context with a discussion of both the good and bad aspects of religions. However, "fair and balanced" is in the eye of the beholder.