What Religion Taught Me About Education

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Being educated does not mean knowing specific maxims, dates, or names but rather means gathering the tools you need to have credible agency, by which I mean the ability to think for yourself, to have insight, and, most importantly, to ask questions of yourself, your background, and your society.

When I think about my own process of being educated, I think about schisms. Specifically, I think about my struggle to separate from my Catholic family’s religious and political beliefs and the unfolding process of learning, developing my own sense of self, and gathering enough courage to defend my opinions.

For the first few years of Sunday School, my teacher never opened the curriculum books. Instead, we openly discussed courage, service, family, and morals. I truly felt like I was learning something. This ended when nuns became my teachers. We were drilled on Bible passages and focused on the bookwork. Sunday School seemed to be more about guilt than morality, more about obedience than goodness.

They were not abusive, but they were deliberate. They were products of a long history of rigorous training, discipline, and compliance. They gave us print-outs of prayers, and we were to read them aloud before bed each night until we knew it by heart. They never taught us what the words meant. We practiced receiving the body, receiving communion through an almost Pavlovian exercise; goldfish were gently placed into our overlapped hands. If they were not correctly placed, if we walked wrong, we were told to start again. Finally, an administrator stomped from classroom to classroom, asking random questions to students. If they got them wrong, they were scolded.

Services were similarly challenging, but for oddly opposite reasons. If, in Sunday School, I was accountable for infinitesimals, in services I was infinitely unaccountable. In these services, I found it difficult to be present—although I wanted to be. As a child, I would trace my own shadow as the priest droned in the background. As I grew older and tried harder to listen, my focus drifted to the internal inconsistencies of the sermons and lack of connection I felt with the scriptures. All I could think about was why I was sitting there, what I was meant to do with these words and phrases flying around my head.

This passive, uneasy education, backed by years of unfulfilling Sunday school classes, transformed into something personalized and attainable. In school, through reading and discussing other religions, the church’s role in history, and the risks of indoctrination of any kind, I began to consider the implications of humanity’s tendencies towards power, hypocrisy, and exclusion often in the name of religion. These deliberations didn’t eliminate my desire to be part of a spiritual community or to be an ethical person but have educated me about the need to honor and continue to develop my personal values as the core of my belief system.

My mom and maternal grandmother both understood when I asked to leave the church just before my confirmation exam that would have marked my adult entrance into the church. In fact, after struggling to reconcile their faith with a history of misogyny, abuse, homophobia, and corruption, they stopped attending services themselves.

One day after class, I slapped my books on the table in defeat. My mom came beside me, and I remember her saying, “You don’t have to receive confirmation if you don’t want to.”

The point of this, for me, is that education is fundamentally about ownership. It’s not that my religious education was terrible. It was okay. I just felt no sense of agency. No sense of ownership or connection. In the time since then, I’ve realized that my discomfort was partially because I think that education is fundamentally about experiences and change rather than orthodoxy—something the Catholic church obviously struggles with.

All of this being said, I am aware that learning is not exclusively about knowledge. Learning is sometimes about empathy, and to that end, here are some things I appreciate about the religion I came from; here are some things I have learned:

  • The sense of intimacy—the humbling sense that there is something or someone much larger and more aware, whose intentions somehow envelop your entire life, and the lives of everyone you know.
  • The hopefulness of life after death.
  • The baked-in sense that you can grow—prominent in some (but not all) sects.
  • The sheer magnitude of being a person for others, of existing not as a self-focused act but as a selfless one.
  • Engaging with communities and social issues should be as important and habitual as brushing your teeth.
  • It’s important to take the time and find the space to reflect on your position in life, your journey, and how far you’ve come.