Religion in the Egyptian classroom: Killing scientific curiosity at a young age

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My eight year old nephew sat reading from the Education Ministry’s official book of Islamic Education for the Third Grade — a book that all nominally Egyptian Muslim kids have to study from, no matter how posh or liberal their private schools might be.

Bored and distracted by the attention deficit of kids his age, he read out loud the story of a boy who went with his uncle to the countryside and was amazed at the variety of plants, trees and fruits.

“How can all these plants differ in their shape, smell and taste, though they are all on the same land being irrigated by the same water?” the boy called Sherif asked his uncle.

For a kid (hell, for an adult), I think this can be a genuinely interesting question. It offers the teacher a chance to arouse some curiosity in kids about very, very basic facts in botany, farming and adaptation. And while I realise this is not a science class, I was still struck by how curiosity-annihilating yet utterly void of any useful explanation the uncle’s response to this kid was:

“It is the power of God, Sherif.”

As though he had momentarily forgotten, the kid exclaimed, “Ah, truly it is God’s power. He is capable of everything.”

Putting aside the irrelevant argument that this conclusion would technically be true if God existed, there is something so inherently uninformative and boringly simplistic about it as to make it an utterly useless (not to mention baseless) assertion.

But it’s worse than that: this is a response that essentially tricks a young mind into thinking a question has been answered (“God did it”), thereby killing off any initial curiosity raised by the apparent mystery of plantlife, and yet at the same time nothing has actually been answered.

It’s a pseudo-explanation that holds zero explanatory value except that it serves to conjure the illusion of demystification. In reality, all it actually does is sneakily substitute one mystery for another: The mystery of what God’s power is or really refers to replaces the mystery of how plants work.

Yet the thing about “God’s power” is that there is nothing to really ask about it. All you can say, if you believe in it, is, “There is God. He is inherently mysterious and unobservable. And he’s pretty powerful.” End of story. Move along.

In contrast, tell a kid a few things about the nature of seeds, how water activates them, and how plants use their fruits to spread even more seeds, and, aside from providing them with an infinitely more interesting, true, and relevant answer, you have also raised a hundred new questions for them to ask: why are seeds hard and why are fruits so tasty and so on.

In other words, you have stimulated their scientific curiosity about the world. On the other hand, “the power of God” shuts down this process before it can even get started. It kills the critical thinking that curiosity often leads to.

It gets worse, though. As my nephew read on, I found that this kid then goes back home and tells his dad what he’s learned. But the father reminds him that God’s power is not just behind plants, but also:

  • The creation of humans in the best image.
  • The descent of rain from the sky to supply humans, animals and plants with water.
  • The creation of the night and day and their differences.
  • The creation of the sun, stars and planets in space.

Aside from the fact that it literally makes no sense to “create” the night and day (as if these were conceptually separate from being the mere side-effects of a revolving planet near a sun), and aside from the fact that I don’t know what it means to have tens of millions of people suffering from countless diseases, syndromes and disorders at any given time and yet speak of humans being created in the “best image”, this list here really illustrates the ultimate curiosity killer (not to mention that all this is outright shameless indoctrination).

Okay, that was a very long sentence. But the frustration that formulated it stems from the fact that these baseless assertions could only be justifiable at a time when we didn’t have the means to possibly fathom how any of these things worked or came about. It was no surprise that the ancients would invoke gods to explain lightening and droughts and so on. That was an understandable time for the “God of the gaps” to have a role to play. Have a gap in your knowledge? Here, fill it in with some god.

But at this point, we understand these processes and phenomena to a sufficient degree that there is literally no space left for a god to occupy, functionally speaking. There is nothing for a god to do, no purpose to hold in the explanatory chain. Scientific understanding has made his role redundant.

If you insist, you can (using zero evidence) claim that all these processes are based on fundamental laws that God moulded and tweaked for his own purposes. Fine. But then at least say that rather than give kids the impression that “God’s power” is some active force that somehow animates things like electricity in a TV.

Ultimately, if we must have religion classes at schools, they should have nothing to say about these purely scientific matters. Let them only focus on the history of religion, and ideally engage in a bit of comparative religious studies. At the very least, it’s fucking 2013 — it’s about time we stop this blatant brainwashing bullshit.