Religious liberty and critical religious education: What Justice Alito got right and wrong

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Religious liberty is important, but so too is critical education about religion. I’ve spent much of my career making this point, including in a comment on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling about religious liberty. So, I was curious to read what Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito suggested about religious liberty when he spoke at an event in Rome a couple of weeks ago.

Alito’s anecdote and the need for education

Alito’s speech has been criticized for a variety of reasons. Some said he unfairly attacked secular families (in an LA Times column that quotes OnlySky author Phil Zuckerman). Others suggested Alito was too smug about overturning Roe v. Wade. And others warned that it is improper for a Supreme Court Justice to speak publicly about a polarizing topic such as religious liberty.  

I’m sympathetic to some of this criticism. But rather than jumping on the anti-Alito bandwagon, I’d like to dwell on an anecdote that Alito shared in his speech about a young boy he once observed at a Berlin museum. Upon seeing a crucifix, the boy turned to his mother and asked, “Who is that man?”

Alito suggested the story was “a harbinger of what may lie ahead for our culture.” He continued, “The problem that looms is not just indifference to religion, it’s not just ignorance about religion. There’s also growing hostility to religion.”

But Alito failed to connect the dots. Asking “Who is this man?” does not indicate hostility. It indicates curiosity. And the solution for curiosity is inquiry and education. Alito used his anecdote to defend the need for religious liberty, without pausing to consider what we ought to say in response to the question, “Who is this man?”

Liberty without education is an empty vessel. Liberty allows us to drink whatever we want. But without education, we won’t know how to fill our cups. The moral of Alito’s story is that in addition to defending religious liberty, we ought to promote education about religion.  

Questioning religion at Prague Castle

At about the same time that Alito was speaking in Rome, I was touring the gothic cathedral in Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral, with a couple of young men. These college students had just completed a study trip in Berlin, where they were studying, among other things, the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We met them in Prague after they completed their course.

One of these young men was my own son. He was raised in our secular household, although he has toured a wide variety of holy sites. We’ve taken him to the Lama Temple in Beijing. We explored abandoned rustic churches on hillsides in Greece. We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. And we’ve explored other religious sites in Europe and South America.

My son was curious to learn more about the stories being told in the stained glass and other artworks in the cathedral. We paused in a couple of places and I told him about John the Baptist, the Last Judgment, and so on.

His friend had never visited a Christian church before. He was a secular Jew from California. And he admitted he was a little bewildered. At one point, he shook his head at all of the macabre imagery. He wondered aloud about how weird it all was.

Old-world cathedrals are quite bizarre, if you’ve never visited one before. There are grotesque gargoyles, angels with swords stabbing demons, Jesus on the cross, and images of dead people rising out of their tombs.

The visit prompted lots of questions and discussion. And I believe it was a success. We all learned something, which is the point of study, travel, and inquiry.

Religious education and religious liberty

It is obvious that we need religious liberty for that kind of learning to happen. We must be free to explore and discover, and to ask questions about religion. And while we are asking those questions, we need to keep firmly in mind the history of intolerance and hatred. Religious education must be critical. We must remember the scourge of anti-Semitism, the European clash between Catholics and Protestants, and the extermination of native religions in the Americas.

Critical conversations are, of course, open-ended. So, it is important also to recall, as Alito did in his speech, that religious leaders have also been at the forefront of movements for social reform. All of this is obviously quite complicated. And there can be no fixed outcome. Religious liberty and education about religion are not dogmatic. They open minds rather than close them.

While some conservatives may defend religious liberty in the hope of making the world more religious, I suspect there may be a different outcome. Religious liberty will likely lead to growing diversity and to more questions about religion. Within religious traditions, it will likely produce calls for reform. And I suspect that growing religious liberty is contributing to the demise of religiosity and the growth of non-religion in Europe, Canada, and the U.S.

More freedom and more questions

Let’s return again to Samuel Alito’s encounter in the museum in Berlin. In a world of religious liberty, we are free to ask “Who is that man?” Indeed, we ought to encourage young people to ask probing questions about religious icons, images, and ideas. There is always more to be learned about the world’s religions.

But in a world of religious liberty, there is no place for traditional dogmatic lessons. It is dogmatism and intolerance that lead to atrocity. Four hundred years ago, the Czech reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake. This led to the Thirty Years War, which began in Prague. In Berlin almost a hundred years ago, religious intolerance reached a fever pitch as book burnings set the stage for the death camps and crematoria.  

To prevent these kinds of atrocities, we need religious liberty. But we also need critical education about religion and free inquiry that opens minds.

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