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Education and the Religious

by Donald Vandenberg - 1987

This article attempts to emancipate the religious aspect of human existence from its accidental, historical embodiment in religions. The religious concerns being at home in nature, on earth, and in the universe. Ways of teaching this natural piety in a manner not connected with religion are discussed. (Source: ERIC)

I wish to thank Richard Pratte for pointing me toward environmental ethics.

The question of education and the religious is too important to be left to religion. Recent papers by Clive Beck and Leonard Waks in this journal, for example, fail to come to grips with the religious because they mistakenly identify it with religion.1 There is no such thing as religion in the singular or religion as such.2 The reification and misuse of the word in a generic sense led these authors into grave errors. Beck’s stated reason for advocating the study of religion in schools is that “religion refuses to go away.”3 So do cancer, AIDS, and taxes. Beck did not show that religion is a good thing, and the claim that the worth of religions can be assessed by “basic human values” is patronizing.4 It implies that it is all right to believe whatever one wants so long as it satisfies one’s needs, even if it is not true: “In some cases false beliefs may be quite important to US.”5 False beliefs should not be included in the public school curriculum, but this follows from Beck’s recommendation that religions should be studied directly, comparatively, and in the context of other school subjects.6

A similar difficulty occurred in Waks’s response to Beck. He claimed that “the core of a religion consists of a particular end,” and defined it as “spiritual growth.”7 Spokespersons for various religions, however, might have said it was salvation, eternal life, nirvana, enlightenment, righteousness, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus, or glorifying God. These are different ends to which spiritual growth is a means, and the means would vary accordingly. Waks claimed his “abstract account” was “based on all the great religions,“8 but his definition is psychological and secular. Spiritual growth is the “restructuring of self to increase capacity for truth, penetration into the real, access to experience ordinarily blocked by biologically and socially conditioned needs-gratifying conceptual schemes, access to the world beyond ordinary conceptual limits.”9

One can agree with Beck that the public schools should “help people find the religious truth that is appropriate for them”10 and with Waks that such restructuring of the self is religious if and only if the religious is not identified with the rituals, myths, and doctrines associated with the historically great religions.


The religious was defined by John Dewey as a harmonizing of the self with the universe that enables one to have “attitudes that lend deep and enduring support to the processes of living.”11 To emancipate the religious from supernatural religions, he claimed that any fully developed experience results in a better adjustment with environment and therefore has a religious aspect. Religions claim to produce this outcome, but Dewey reversed it. Wherever there are “changes in ourselves in relation to the world in which we live that are much more inclusive and deep-seated,” there is a religious outlook.12 Confirmation in ordinary usage occurs when it is said that someone known to be a non-church-goer who has accepted a personal tragedy with equanimity must be a very religious person. What is attributed is a sustaining confidence in the meaning of life and faith in, and respect for, the natural order of things, or natural piety.

Someone who “has” a religion is not necessarily religious in the sense of having natural piety defined as “a just sense of nature as the whole of which we are parts . . . marked by intelligence and purpose.”13 As Dewey indicated, natural piety is absent from both supernaturalism and aggressive atheism because they consider “man in isolation” from nature and lack appreciation of the natural world. Supernaturalism believes the earth is the center of the universe, human beings are the most important things on earth, and the spiritual development of the inner soul is the most important event in the universe. Militant atheism ignores the poetry celebrating human dependence on nature and expresses the defiance of someone living in an indifferent or hostile world.14 Dewey is correct, for theists and atheists make claims about the universe that extend far beyond the evidence and therefore lack natural piety.

On the other hand, Dewey himself largely ignored the cosmos of astronomy. His interest in the control of nature and belief in progress overlooked the limitations nature places on human projects. These characteristics caused Bertrand Russell to claim that Dewey lacked cosmic piety. He substituted inquiry for truth, which is “dependent upon facts largely outside of human control,” and which compels one to accept a humility before the cosmos that is absent from Dewey’s philosophy of power.15 This makes it necessary to distinguish natural piety, cosmic piety, and piety in the sense associated with theism.

Whatever the aim of a particular religion may be, the aim of educating in regard to it would be to develop piety, that is, dutifulness regarding its practices and obligations, or devotion.

To emancipate the religious from the encumbrances incurred in the great historical religions, I will investigate the education needed for the development of the religious largely in regard to natural and cosmic piety. I will begin with an attempt to come to terms with fundamentalism,16 for it is not religion but fundamentalists who will not go away. Then an interpretation of Genesis will try to help fundamentalists come to terms with a literal reading of the book that is the genesis of the two major religions of Western civilization. A concept of the religious will be extracted from this most primordial source, then the end of cosmology will be discussed to accommodate the death of God and substantiate the claim that revivals of the historically great religions are recidivistic attempts to demodernize consciousness.

Within this framework the main determinants of a curriculum for the religious will be outlined. Although the emphasis will be on the development of natural and cosmic piety, the results will be compared to the recommendations of Beck and Waks to estimate the extent to which the proposals would also promote piety in the sense associated with theistic religions.


It is well known that fundamentalists have tried to remove certain books from, and to insert prayer and creationism into, the school curriculum. Supreme Court decisions, of course, have banned from the public schools in the United States prayer, Bible reading, and released-time programs of religious instruction on school premises. These bans are also entailed by the principle of freedom of conscience and religion. There are no nondenominational prayers or Scriptures, and it offends human dignity to be subjected involuntarily to the practice or content of a religion one does not profess or to be sequestered while others receive instruction in a religion.

The desire to have creationism taught in schools differs sharply from earlier attempts to ban evolution. Fundamentalists want the Genesis account or “creation science” taught along with evolution so students who learn creationism at home are not disturbed by its omission in school.17 Beck actually encouraged this by saying that standard school subjects “must give due attention to religion-like issues.”18 The significance of creationism is not self-contained. Fundamentalist parents inculcate the virtue of premarital chastity in their children, who, they believe, should not have to defend in classrooms the morality they are taught at home, which is biblically based, supposedly in absolute values, and required by religious devoutness, or piety. They no longer want to impose this morality on schools. They want the schools not to impose moral relativism on their own children. They believe that theories of geological or biological evolution challenge the inerrancy of the Bible and undermine its “absolute values.” They therefore introduce cognitive relativism to the schools, which supports moral relativism, as do the use of classroom discussion, simulations, role playing, and inquiry methods. These are alleged to encourage children to develop their own opinions regardless of their basis in evidence or truth. From the fundamentalists’ basic concern for sexual morality and the institution of marriage and family, then, there follows their emphasis on basics, factual knowledge, truth, and creationism.

Coming to terms with fundamentalism therefore does not require a return of religion to the schools. The schools, rather, should stop undermining parental efforts to inculcate the code of premarital chastity with the excuse that many adolescents are already sexually active, and so forth. Their point is well taken. For example, if a student seeks out a teacher for confidential advice regarding sexual morality or drugs, it is always right to recommend continence and abstinence. It is no time to be nondirective, which is a symptom of moral bankruptcy, or moral nihilism. Then, too, as the agnostic Russell said, the surrender of truth for inquiry is cosmic impiety. Cognitive relativism is also a symptom of nihilism. Beck acknowledged the problem when he said to assess the worth of religions by basic values, which assumes they are irrelative, if not “absolute.”19

An adequate concept of truth, however, would indicate that it is morally right to exclude creationism from the school curriculum. To show this it is unnecessary to refer to epistemology, creation science, or Supreme Court decisions. It suffices to invite fundamentalists to come to terms with a literal reading of Genesis.


To facilitate a public reading, only the English text of Genesis in the Revised Standard Version will be consulted. As we shall see, it is primarily the story of Abraham, as indicated by noting its general content:


The creation story

Adam and the generations of Adam

Noah and the generations of Noah

Abraham and the generations of Abraham











The first chapter says the things created are the earth, sky, sea, sun, moon, stars, and plant and animal life. The second chapter begins again. It starts, “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created,” and goes on, “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens . . . the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground.” In the first chapter, however, heaven is said to be made on the first day, earth on the second, and “man” on the fifth. Then, too, in the second chapter man is allegedly created before vegetation and animal life, but in the first chapter the vegetation is created on the second day, then birds and fish on the fourth, and land animals on the fifth but still before “man.” These are two different creation stories.

The story of Adam similarly begins again with chapter live, which starts, “This is the book of the generations of Adam,” and lists the generations starting with Seth, omitting mention of Eve, Cain, Abel, and Eden. A serious discrepancy is that when Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden, he had to “till the soil.” So did Cain (3:23, 4:2). After the flood, however, Noah is said to be “the first tiller of the soil” (9:20).

A literal reading of the stories of Adam and Noah, in other words, requires the fundamentalist to come to terms with two questions and give up the claim of the inerrancy of the Bible. Was man created after the biosphere, or was it created after and for man? Who was the first tiller of the soil, Adam or Noah?

A reasonable hypothesis is that Genesis is a collection of fragments of disparate writings put together with insufficient editing. The story of Noah was written at least eight generations later than Adam’s story, and Abraham’s story, nine generations after Noah’s. Because of the intervening centuries, Genesis is an amalgamation of many fragments, at least six of which are apparent in the English translation: the genealogies of Adam and Noah and the stories of creation, Adam, Noah, and Abraham and his immediate descendants.

Internal evidence is the change in style. Genesis is less reliant on the supernatural and closer to natural experience as it goes on. Adam’s story involves the supernatural less than the creation story but more than the flood story. There is nothing supernatural about Abraham’s story except for the alleged speeches of God. These become less frequent in the stories of Isaac and Jacob and disappear from Joseph’s story. The narrative receives enough detail to seem realistic and lifelike only beginning with the story of Abraham.

A literal reading of the text, without recourse to philological, historical, archeological, or other scholarly evidence, suggests it is the history of a family that kept track of itself for twenty-three generations. Until the twentieth generation, almost nothing is known of the clan except the names of the firstborn son of each generation and his age at the birth of his own firstborn son and at his own death. Then the irruption of God’s voice allegedly occurs periodically in the life of Abraham, after which a detailed account of some main events of family life is maintained. This history is embellished with the stories of creation, the garden of Eden, the flood, and the Tower of Babel.

The interpretation is corroborated by external evidence. Cuneiform tablets indicate the creation and flood stories were borrowed from Babylonian mythology and grafted onto the monotheism that would otherwise be functionless in the history of the family until Abraham.20 Archeologists found evidence of a massive flood in Ur and of a chapel on top of a turret on the temple of Marduk in Babylon that was probably the prototype for the Tower of Babel story.21

The account of the nature of man and the universe—the cosmology—of the creation story is part of the religion in Genesis and the religions founded upon it, but it is not part of the religious in the life of Abraham. There is, moreover, no explicit theology in Genesis. Any inference about the nature of God has to be drawn from the Babylonian cosmology and the conversations alleged to have occurred with Abraham. The Babylonian cosmology, however, tells us nothing about the universe or God, only that the authors of the fragments used whatever they had available to articulate a meaningful world in which they felt at home.

The definition of the religious as an effort to establish a home in a somewhat accommodating universe will be explicated by an attempt to understand the religious in the life of Abraham. All the encounters alleged to have occurred between God and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob pertain directly or indirectly to the promise that Abraham’s descendants will live in Canaan forever. They express the emergence of a very deep feeling of being at home in the land of Canaan. Abraham had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran with his father and clan, then wandered on with Lot, allegedly called by God to go to a land that would be shown to him, where he would found a great nation (12: 1). This is understandable as not feeling at home in the new family residence and wanting to go out into the world to seek his fortune. After he settled in Canaan, the deepest recesses of his being responded to the feeling of being at home in the world. The happiness was so great, the response to the ground of his being so resonant, that he thought he heard an overpowering voice tell him he was at home, not just temporarily, but for all his descendants, forever.

That the religious in Genesis is related to feeling at home in the cosmos is corroborated by other elements. For his sin, Adam was allegedly driven out of the garden of Eden, made homeless. For killing Abel, Cain was condemned to wander the earth homelessly. Noah was promised there would not be another flood to make him homeless again. The Tower of Babel was allegedly built so people would not be scattered over the earth. This allegedly displeased God, who therefore scattered them over the earth. Ishmael was condemned to be an outcast and was driven out of Canaan with Hagar to wander homelessly in the wilderness. Except when people were said to be killed by the flood and the destruction of Sodom, the only punishment meted out when people allegedly displeased God in Genesis was homelessness. These punishments can be understood without reference to God by realizing that the major problem faced by the people depicted in Genesis was homesickness: cosmic homesickness.

Conversely, the one thing bestowed on people when they allegedly pleased God in Genesis was a homecoming of such intensity it seemed to affect them and their descendants forever.

The textual Abraham believed he had to deserve his homecoming, but not by practicing rituals associated with religion. He built three altars, but in gratitude after hearing the promise (12:7, 8; 13:18). The two sacrifices express gratitude and loyalty (15:9-11; 22:13). The only prayer asks that Abimelech be allowed to have a son (20: 17). Abraham’s obligations, rather, are ethical. He was reminded of his heritage in return for maintaining his integrity by refusing gifts from the king of Sodom. He is told, ‘Walk before me and be blameless” (17: 1). He is said to have done his part, “by doing righteousness and justice” (18: 19). Isaac is allegedly told the covenant will continue “because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (26:5).

If there was a revelation in Genesis, it occurred only in those words attributed to God within quotation marks. Statements before Abraham’s time can be discounted because they are incarnated in the Babylonian cosmology and because subsequent references in the Bible are not to the God of Adam and Noah but to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.22 Statements allegedly made to Abraham’s son and grandson largely repeat what was supposed to have been said to him. The two occasions for Isaac occurred when he became afraid to go to Egypt and was told to stay at Beersheba (26:2-5, 24). A similar repetition occurred when Jacob worried about going to Egypt to get Joseph (46:2-4), although this came in a dream, as did the initial appearance to Jacob (28:13-15) and the warning to Laban. The only other statements are when Jacob was told to return to the land of his fathers and to change his name (31:13; 35:10-12).

All the statements ascribed to God in conversation with Abraham have to do, directly or indirectly, with promising a home in Canaan for him and his descendants forever. Their repetition can make us wonder why Abraham should have been trusted if he needed such frequent reminding of the covenant. A depth interpretation would refer these statements to unacknowledged aspects of Abraham’s inner being that were projected out into the universe because they were unacceptable to his conscious mind. Repressed, they appeared out there as God's voice, but they came from the ground of his being and reflected his deepest fears and desires.

There are two aspects to the promise he “heard.” One is the matter of becoming the father of a great nation, having many descendants who will prosper, and so forth. Because founding such a dynasty is a kind of immortality, it could have reflected fear of death, but there is no evidence throughout Genesis to indicate such a fear. There is a fear his descendants will live as slaves in a foreign land for four generations before they will return to Canaan (15:13-16). The other aspect is the promise of a homeland, which, by reaction formation, reflects ontological insecurity over being in a homeless world. The evidence is that when he was “old, well-advanced in years,” Abraham had to buy land to bury his wife. Apparently Abraham was not a “tiller of the soil” but an itinerant shepherd, a nomad, who after all the years in Canaan lacked sufficient land for a burial plot. When buying it, he referred to himself as “a stranger and a sojourner among you” (23:4).

The identification of the religious with becoming at home in the universe is only half of it. The other half is the essential homelessness and the nostalgia for which the religious emerges as a response. When Abraham’s cup became half full, it nevertheless remained half empty. That is to say that the religious is an inner victory over cosmic homelessness that has to be continuously won anew.

This conception is compatible with Dewey’s, but it omits his optimism and adds the existential and phenomenological aspects. The change of names to Abraham and Israel indicates that establishing one’s home in the cosmos also establishes one’s identity and the meaning of one’s life, and, conversely, when one knows who one is, one feels at home in the universe. The conception is also compatible with elements of the religious that are quite foreign to Dewey, such as Abraham’s feelings of reverence and piety.


Whether Abraham’s thoughts originated in encounters with God or in the ground of his own being, they elaborated the existential victory over cosmic homelessness. The liturgy, ecclesiastical structures, and articulated creeds and cosmologies of the Judeo-Christian religions built on Abraham’s experience were only a means for coming to feel at home in the universe. These means are contingent. A Christian can, for example, celebrate the Last Supper with any Christian denomination and renew the sense of being at home within the community of believers regardless of how the memorial is conducted or understood. Similarly, the cosmology developed within the Judeo-Christian tradition contained an account of the nature and destiny of human beings that promised instead of a home in Canaan for one’s descendants a home in heaven for one’s own immortal soul. This was relative to an acceptance of Ptolemaic astronomy, which was largely a historical accident.23

The cosmology, furthermore, was mostly of Greek origin, embodied in what Willem Zuurdeeg called “the Greek cosmic conviction.”24 Plato responded to the disintegration of Athenian culture by reifying the concept of the Good and claiming it existed in a transcendental realm of pure being, unaffected by historical change. Philosophers are supposedly able to gain insight into the Good by learning what everything is good for. Aristotle changed the reified word into God, the final cause and completely actualized Being who is pure reason. Thus the Greek cosmic conviction is that behind the appearance of things there is an underlying reality that is rational, orderly, harmonious, good, beautiful, and eternal.25 There is a divine reason, Logos, that permeates the universe and guides all events within it. Because human reason is like divine reason, the philosopher can reason everything through, come to know reality, and formulate an overview of the entire universe in a rational cosmology that contains answers to the question of the meaning of life and the destiny of human beings. The Greek cosmic conviction became joined to the teachings of Jesus to become the grand synthesis of the Middle Ages.

The purpose of such a cosmology is to establish a home in the universe in which one feels intellectually comfortable. It is expressed in “convictional language,” a mixture of indicative and proclaiming sentences that seem to say something about the world but really express one’s convictions.26 For example, the sentence “Human beings are created in God’s image” is not an indicative sentence that says something about the world. Like the proclamation “All men are created equal,” it expresses a conviction, not a fact. It bears witness to a choice to live in the world a certain way. According to Zuurdeeg, all language was convictional until about 1600. The rise of science gave impetus to the use of indicative sentences and for the first time things appeared in the world.27 With Descartes, man and nature became separated and the natural world became a place to investigate “objectively."28 It was no longer a place in which to dwell.

It seems Zuurdeeg was correct to claim that “our modern ‘world’ is the result of a process of gradual demythologizing or deconvictionalizing of primitive man’s ‘world.”29 The polytheistic religions—and worlds—of the Babylonians and Greeks were demythologized by the monotheism of Abraham, Moses, and the Greek cosmic conviction. The Ptolemaic astronomy and Greek cosmic conviction contained in medieval theology—and their Worlds—were subsequently demythologized by the discoveries of Magellan, Copernicus, and Galileo, for they eliminated heaven as the eternal home of the human soul and removed the self-importance inherent in the geocentric cosmology. The Greek cosmic conviction, however, continued to underlie the Enlightenment faith in the form of deism, the view that God created the universe and then let it run itself according to the laws of nature without further supernatural intervention and that God can be known on rational grounds, without the aid of revelation or the authority of the church, by learning the laws of nature. It therefore underlay the development of modern science and allowed it to arise within Western civilization.30 It underlies laissez-faire capitalism, Marxism, and liberal democracy, for it is assumed by the belief that the “hidden hand” will regulate the economic system if government desists, by Marxism’s very similar belief that rationality will prevail and make government unnecessary after private property is abolished, and by the liberal democrat’s belief that people of good will should work together to achieve the ideal society.31

The Enlightenment faith and its world was then demythologized by Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism. Kant showed that Newtonian science gave us knowledge of the world of appearances, but not of an underlying reality, and his antinomies of reason showed that the arguments for and against God’s existence cancelled each other out. This demythologized the Greek cosmic conviction completely and ended forever the possibility of formulating a rational theology and cosmology.32 It led to Kierkegaard’s “leap to faith” and his exploration of the faith of Abraham.33 It also led to Nietzsche’s claim that God is dead, which means that because it is no longer possible to do metaphysics, or cosmology, the God of the Greek cosmic conviction is dead. The Greek cosmology is dead and one can no longer believe God is working through history.

The end of cosmology occurred independently through the historical development of the natural sciences. The only way to open up the natural world and come to know the universe with sufficient validity to construct a cosmology now is through the methods of the natural sciences, but the division of labor corresponding to the increased specialization of knowledge separated physics, chemistry, and biology from each other during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and left no one to do the science of the whole universe.34

It is not possible, furthermore, to extrapolate from the knowledge of the special sciences to cosmology. It has been argued, for example, that from the Second Law of Thermodynamics one can postulate a general theory of entropy: The universe is running down. Stephen Toulmin indicates this law is valid only if it applies to every thermally isolated system, but this fact says nothing about the universe as a whole until it is shown that the universe is a thermally isolated system.35 The concept of evolution similarly explains the success of populations of particular species in given environmental contexts, that is, a multitude of processes. Because there is no unitary process of evolution, the theory of evolution has no implications for ethics or cosmology.36


If education for the religious is helping the young become at home in the universe through legitimate cognitive means, the question is what these means can be after the end of cosmology.

Its importance can be attested by the significance religions have had in society. Throughout most of known human history, the cosmologies or world views of religions have furnished comprehensive interpretations of reality that have integrated societies by unifying all their meanings, values, and beliefs. They have also integrated individuals into society, enabling them to feel at home in it. The present reading of Genesis is confirmed by the statement “From a sociological and socio-psychological point of view, religion can be defined as a cognitive and normative structure that makes it possible for man to feel ‘at home’ in the universe."37 Vast, historically profound changes, such as the technologization of production, the bureaucratization of government, social and geographical mobility, urbanization, mass education, mass media of communication, and the development of a private sphere of life, have, however, secularized the modern world.38 They have created a distinctly modern consciousness that is functionally rationalized, adapted to a mobile, migratory existence. The individual lacks substantive rationality and is intellectually homeless. Urbanization and pluralism in particular make it necessary for individuals to construct a meaningful private life, a “do it yourself universe, to create a home, but they do not know how to do it.39 The youth culture and counter-culture of the sixties and seventies was largely an attempt to find ways of being at home and was nostalgic.40 When the phenomenological homelessness of modern consciousness becomes understood as cosmic homelessness, people turn to preexisting religions to find a home in them.41 This is recidivistic because it is an attempt to demodernize consciousness.

An education for the religious ought not be based in the great world religions, regardless of the extent and depth of the homelessness, because of the end of cosmology. They ought not be studied singly or comparatively as sources of a world view as if their world views were legitimate and as if one were free to choose among them in terms of which suits one best. For such practice to be educationally responsible, it needs to be morally and intellectually responsible. The choice should be made for the truth in disclosing the actual universe that exists out there. To make this choice responsibly, the student should also study enough astronomy to understand, for example, what it means for astrophysicists to receive signals from quasars that are twelve billion years old and twelve billion light years away from earth.42 Neither scientism nor secularism but the simple facts of the case compel reasonable students to reject the world views of the great religions. Without their cosmologies to furnish the overarching rationale, their liturgies, and so forth, become exotic cult practices that repel students who have studied biology and chemistry and intrigue others only for the wrong reasons.

It might be argued that the objection misses the point, for human beings need to develop cosmic relatedness through the modes of conceptualization found in the world religions. Their convictional language is precisely the means that makes it possible to make fundamental choices regarding who one is.43 When not filled by religion, this need is satisfied by attempts to create a home through violence and bloodshed, as in nazism, fascism, communism, socialism, and nationalism.44 Some young people and insecure adults even crave the protection of a “home” and willingly accede when authoritative people usher them into the “only true” home.45

A retreat into a false cosmology, however, is an act of intellectual cowardice, a response to ontological anxiety over being in the world, a nostalgic retreat from the world, a search for a lost paradise that cannot be regained.46

The question about the religious is fortunately not about one’s cosmological beliefs but about how one can become at home in the universe. It is not about beliefs, nor about the universe, but about becoming at home. Knowledge of astronomy and astrophysics tells us about the universe but not about a home there. For Abraham it was enough to become at home on earth, but his idea of a home was masculine, patriarch cal, and distorted by the will to power.47 This is the origin of nihilism, and, as David Levin claimed, “Our metaphysics desperately needs to recollect the ancient maternal power of the earth if it is to see us through the historical danger of total nihilism.”48 Precisely because the earth is not the center of the universe, the religious has to do with becoming at home on our mother the earth, giver and taker of all that we are and can become.

One can accept biological evolution and still ask about the place of human beings in the natural world, that is, in the larger scheme of things here on earth, where the lives and destinies of human beings are inextricably interwoven with the lives and destinies of all other terrestrial things.49 To accept the task of making one’s home on earth requires one to know the conditions under which it can continue to be a home for human beings and the kind of conduct required to maintain these conditions.50 Because these kinds of concerns have always been the themes of cosmology, they led Toulmin to claim that the proper resources for a “cosmology” limited to the earth were the science and practice of ecology, providing this is accompanied by the attitude of viewing nature as an object of piety, for in the world of nature, “Human beings can both feel, and also be, at home.”51

Although the study of ecology in schools is an indispensable resource to learn some of the conditions under which the natural world will continue to support humanity and be its home, it does not follow that its study as such will enable students to feel or be at home in the natural world. This would follow only if when one knew what things are good for, ecologically speaking, one would be enabled to see the Good, that is, only if the Greek cosmic conviction were not dead. The word ecology comes from the Greek oikas, plus “logy” for “the study of.” Oikas means “house.” Ecology studies things housed in specific environments, which collectively make up the natural world that houses humankind. The house that everyone lives in, however, is more like a hotel or dormitory than a home. To learn about the natural world as providing a house is very different from finding a home in nature.

Things in the world are disclosed in relation to the frame of reference adopted toward them. In the ordinary, everyday world, things are disclosed primarily in terms of their involvement in one’s projects, as both Dewey and Heidegger claimed. To adopt the scientific point of view requires a decentering of consciousness, changing the perceived world from a place in which one dwells to the objective space of the natural world as it exists independently of human involvement, where no one lives. The first world is disclosed as “my world,” the second as “everyone’s world,” or as the world. A third world is disclosed as “our world” in the context of love and unselfish participation when people live together in dialogical, I-Thou relations. When the world is disclosed through I-Thou relatedness to it, it manifests itself as home.52

The relation to the first world is one of calculating manipulation; to the second, detached observation; and to the third, appreciative participation. It is unlikely that the study of ecology alone can enable people to feel and be at home in the natural world because this calls for a deep, affective structure involving one’s whole being. A more general curriculum orientation is necessary.


An education for the religious should help the young find themselves at home in the natural world and able to accept the earth as the place where we live. It should enable them to move from the home-world of childhood to the natural world as perceived by natural scientists without the loss of the feeling of being at home in the world characteristic of childhood play. Perhaps the child’s participation in the world in play under the aegis of parental love can be retained by an adequate curricular emphasis on activities that can involve play like participation, that is, on the bodily modes of knowing of the arts, crafts, trades, and sports.

Of the many influences in the development of the homeless consciousness, one is the academic development of conceptual processes without due regard for the bodily basis of the intentionality of consciousness. If the acquisition of the conceptual schemata of the sciences and other disciplines develops cognitive processes that are not grounded in previously established corporeal schemata, they close one off from bodily awareness of oneself and things in the world. The child, however, is genetically structured for bodily movement and awareness.53 Repetitive movements in learning how to use the body establish corporeal schemata that disclose things in the world through participation in them. These corporeal schemata are of such great significance because of the embodiment of consciousness. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty said,

To the extent that I can elaborate and extend my corporeal schema, to the extent I acquire a better organized experience of my own body, to that very extent will my consciousness of my own body cease being a chaos in which I am submerged and lend itself to a transfer to others.54

Without the development of a corporeal schema, the awareness of one’s own body is unorganized and chaotic. This lack of self-understanding entraps one within one’s body because then the body does not serve as a vehicle of transcendence to the world, preventing reciprocal, dialogical relations with other people. This is extremely significant for cognitive development if Merleau-Ponty was also correct to say, “The intellectual elaboration of our experience of the world is constantly supported by the affective elaboration of our interhuman relations.”55

The articulation of the bodily schema is a necessary condition of dialogical relations with other people, which are necessary to develop a loving attunement to the world. When love of the world supports the acquisition of the conceptual schemata of the natural sciences, they together disclose the world as the home of human beings.

In other words, one has to be at home with oneself before one can be at home with others, at home with others before being at home in the natural world, at home in nature before being at home on earth, and at home on earth before being at home in the universe. Bodily, existential piety precedes natural piety, which precedes cosmic piety, which precedes piety in a theistic sense. To borrow a phrase, the body is the temple of the soul.

Constructive activities drawing on the arts, crafts, trades, and sports and involving manual and bodily modes of knowing that develop corporeal schemata are therefore as important to an education for the religious as are the symbolic skills of reading and writing. Students should have a broad experience in them in the elementary school and then learn at least one art, craft, or trade to the degree necessary to practice it as a lifelong hobby before leaving high school in order to develop the corporeal schemata that enable one to gain and maintain a detailed, solid grasp on the world through one’s hands that lets one know things in their primordial being and feel comfortable and at home with them. As Levin suggested, if we are to break out of the Greek cosmic conviction, we have to acknowledge that we can think with our hands.56 A hobbylike skill enables a primordial awareness of the presencing of things. The gentle touch of a person with some expertise in one of the arts, crafts, or trades lets the things in that activity present themselves in the more intimate, delicate qualities they manifest only to someone who cares for them, as the grain of the wood reveals itself to the cabinetmaker,57 the texture of the stone to the sculptor, the feel and drape of the fabric to the seamstress, and so forth.

The games and sports of childhood and adolescence similarly develop corporeal schemata involving the whole body. After broader participation earlier, students should before leaving high school learn at least one sport or the dance to the depth required for it to become a lifelong pursuit. Through sports and the dance one comes to know the world through a full, bodily immersion in it that yields holistic, bodily contact with the world and creates confidence in one’s bodily undertakings in and with the world. The rhythms of one’s stride while walking, running, dancing, or in sport restore a primordial relation to the earth. They change the quality of experienced space from everydayness or detached observation to that of a place in which the earth presences itself as the original ground of being.58

A periodic return to a felt sense of bodily movement originating from one’s own initiative in sport or dance is an important balance to the socialization into the public, anonymous, and homeless space of modern consciousness by school life, the intellectual curriculum, and the technological and bureaucratic structures of urbanized society. This return to the home-world of one’s own motility opens up “a space of much greater openness, greater richness, and greater emotional hospitality.”59 It changes the space of the world into a place wherein one can be at home in a primordial awareness of being.

Making things with one’s hands and doing complex things with one’s whole body as in sports or the dance enable one to become intimately aware of, and at home in, the immediate foreground of the natural world. This is as necessary to feel and be at home in the universe as it is necessary for the child to have a room of its own to which it can always withdraw and feel safe (and at home) and as it is necessary for the family to have a safe, protective haven to which its members can withdraw and feel completely secure and at home.60 The young should feel their neighborhood is their home ground when they return to its horizons after sallying forth into the unfamiliar, broader society, and young adults should feel their society and nation is their home when returning from abroad. They should feel their society is as much their own home as anyone’s and that their country is their homeland.

This feeling of being at home in one’s own country should extend the affection felt for the people living in one’s own land to others through a realization that if the earth is our mother, all the peoples of the world are children of the earth.

This statement of the ideal of the religious as feeling at home on earth furnishes the context in the lived world for learning to be at home in nature through the study of ecology. The patriotic allusions indicate that learning to be at home in nature is also learning to be at home in one’s native land, in the motherland. This is attested by references to nature in patriotic songs, as these excerpts from different songs illustrate:

I love thy rocks and rills,

Thy woods and templed hills,

My heart with rapture thrills . . .

O beautiful for spacious skies,

For amber waves of grain,

For purple mountain majesties,

Above the fruited plain . . .

From the mountains,

To the prairies,

To the ocean, White with foam . . .

As the sun was shining, and I was strolling,

And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,

As the fog was lifting, a voice was saying,

This land was made for you and me.

These words are hymns of praise to mother earth. They are not about the political or economic system of the country but about the natural world in which the people of the land have made their home. They celebrate being here, the presencing of the earth, the emergence of being, and they are compatible with celebration to honor the appearance of the earth in other lands.

Instead of having schoolchildren learn these songs and acquire patriotism in the abstract, the curriculum should include an outdoor education program that involves camping in the wilderness and ecology taught on site by naturalists who love the wilderness and who can disclose the qualities of wild things in their own habitat and enable the children to hear their own voices singing their own hymns of praise as did Abraham and Woody Guthrie. If the children are to become habituated to rather than intimidated by nature, they need to acquire manual and bodily schemata in the arts, crafts, trades, and sports in school before participating in such outdoor education.

Ecology should also be a theme running throughout the standard subjects of the intellectual curriculum, if not their integrating focus. The basic science at the high school level should be biology organized as ecology, and subsequent subjects in the natural sciences can be more about the things, living and nonliving, terrestial and celestial, that people ought to know about to understand the place of human beings in the larger scheme of things and thereby come to feel more at home in the natural world. It may be as important as learning methods of inquiry through laboratory experience to learn how to use the accumulated knowledge of the sciences to make sense out of the world around one because their abstractness and frequent focus on what is too small or too distant to see with the naked eye easily separates the conceptualized knowledge of the sciences from the perceptual world of students, the only world in which they can feel and be at home.

It may be platitudinous to say that geography is the study of the home of human beings, but in an education for the religious, this theme should be both explicit and dominant and the pedagogy should be heavily weighted with sensory elements to display the beauty of the earth and its people. In the study of history, the political, economic, and military aspects of the development of one’s country can be subsumed within a frame of reference of a story of the way in which the people of the land made their homes within the natural setting of the place and made their country into their homeland (and often made aboriginal people homeless). The humanities, especially literature, should portray how people come to terms with the more significant problems of life, such as birth, love, marriage, work, inescapable suffering, the struggle between good and evil, and the difficulties of creating a human world in which one can be at home with oneself and in society and make a place for oneself on earth.

In general, that is, if the content of the intellectual curriculum can be related to the perceptual world of students so that the conceptualizations disclose things in the world, students are helped to make sense out of, and brought into closer contact with, the world and enabled to become more at home in it, especially if becoming at home in the world is a theme that explicitly informs the content of instruction.

Equally important is the acquisition of the principle of respect for nature. It should permeate the curriculum and life of the school. Environmental ethics has now developed sufficiently to claim that ecology taught as the scientific study of the conditions under which the earth can continue to be the home of humankind can and should be accompanied by an environmental ethics to help students understand why and how a biocentric viewpoint should be adopted to help maintain those conditions.61 Just as every ethic regarding the conduct between people is based on the fundamental principle of respect for persons to show an appreciation of the worth and dignity of the individual human being, so will every environmental ethic rest on the fundamental principle of respect for nature to show an appreciation of the worth and value of all living and nonliving things.

That is to say that natural piety can be taught and learned in schools. Obligations and duties toward the world of nature can be conceptualized, reflected upon, and studied in cognitively valid ways. For example, in an eminently reasonable, unfanatical book, Paul Taylor set out four moral rules for an environmental ethic: (1) Nonmalificence: One should not harm things in nature; (2) noninterference: One should not interfere with natural ecosystems or biotic communities; (3) fidelity: One should not betray the trust wild animals place in one; (4) restitutive justice: Violations of the first three rules should be followed by restitution or reparation.62 Students can learn conceptually that if they have respect for nature, they incur an obligation to repair whatever damage they do to the ecosystems or the natural world. They can also learn how to make such reparation for the various kinds of exploitation of the natural world that occur as human beings seek to maintain their own lives. To learn the principle of respect for nature intellectually in classrooms, however, is not the same thing as acquiring natural piety as a fundamental attunement to the world. Such study is needed to implement natural piety, but acquiring it requires a basis in the arts, crafts, trades, sports, and outdoor education to bring one into direct contact with things in nature.

Direct contact is necessary because respect for nature should be developed as an emotional “deep structure” of one’s very being, that is, as the moral virtue of natural piety. This is an outcome of personal experience of the values, or qualities, of things. Everything encountered in the natural, lived world has qualities: colors, flavors, sounds, odors, textures, degrees of hardness, density, and so forth. As one works with things in the arts, crafts, and trades one becomes aware of their qualities, finds them valuable, cares for them, and wants to take care of them and preserve them. Such dialogical encounters with natural things develops naturally into respect for nature.

More importantly, camping in the wilderness while learning about biotic communities on their own sites enables one to learn the first rule of house keeping in the wilderness: One ought to leave a campsite in the condition in which one found it. One removes all traces of one’s presence out of an ethical obligation to the next camper. This should be the first commandment of any revival of the religious, for one cannot have a home without the housekeeping in which all take part. Although some environmentalists believe, like Abraham, that there are obligations to future generations, this is doubtful because it is not clear if one can have an obligation to someone who does not exist. It is clear, however, that there is an obligation to those who will come after us and who are now living, that is, the rising generation. We are now obligated to leave them the earth as livable as we found it when we arrived.

Most important, however, is the child’s openness to the world and its experience of space. The child can experience nature as a place of enchantment because it is “exceptionally attuned to the full dimensionality of his places . . . and more receptive than most adults to the very fact, the ontological gift, of presencing as such."63 The child, like Abraham and Woody Guthrie, is capable of what seems to be nature mysticism. As Taylor suggested, “A mysticism in which the highest state of human consciousness is understood as a matter of having one’s self become one with the natural world is also quite compatible with the moral attitude of respect for nature.”64 This is not to suggest that outdoor education aim at nature mysticism. It suffices to achieve a love of nature that can supply motivational force for a willing adherence to an adequate environmental ethics developed on a conceptual basis in classrooms in coordination with the acquisition of adequate scientific knowledge of the biosphere that together can develop a respect for nature as the home of human beings.


This article attempts to emancipate the religious aspect of human existence from its accidental, historical embodiment in religions by appealing to its appearance in the life of Abraham before a priestly class arose to institutionalize and sanctify the outward paraphernalia developed to celebrate the inward attunement of being at home in the universe.

Such an interpretation is compatible with Dewey’s view that the religious is a harmonization of oneself and the universe, but it is expressed in the language of the lived world to avoid his reductionistic strictures on how an adjustment with the environment should be achieved and to facilitate corroboration with findings in philosophy of religion (Zuurdeeg), philosophy of science (Toulmin), phenomenological sociology (Berger et al.), and existential phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty and Levin).

It is compatible with the death of God understood as the impossibility of metaphysics in the sense of traditional cosmology and theology, and it is implemented with a proposal that the appropriate resources for an intellectually tenable world view and a morally responsible way of life include those of the science of ecology and the practice of environmental ethics, for these enable one to understand the conditions under which the earth can continue to be a home for the human race and the duties and obligations that must be accepted to deserve it as a home.

An education for the religious aspect of human existence should have a large component of the arts, crafts, trades, sports, and outdoor education in the school curriculum to enable the young to become at home in and among the natural things in the world within their perceptual horizons. The theoretical components of the school curriculum should be integrated through ecology and ecological themes in the natural sciences and through themes related to the achievements, failures, and difficulties involved in previous individual and collective efforts to make a home on earth in school subjects like geography, history, literature, and music.

These recommendations include everything Beck listed as allegedly typical elements of religion when he confronted education: “tradition, community, profound experiences, a conception of origins and destiny, a world view, a way of life, a sense of the transcendent, a conception of the meaning of life, and so on."65 He correctly claimed that these topics are of interest to both nonreligious and religious people and incorrectly called them “religion-like” aspects of their lives. They are no more religion-like than are nutrition or fund-raising religion-like simply because some religions have dietary laws and raise funds. They are not typical of religions in the same sense that “ritual, belief in the supernatural, an attitude of acceptance of the divine order,” which are included in Beck’s first list, are typical.66 Their omission in the list for education indicates that Beck accidentally emancipated the “religious and religion-like” topics from religions as well as from piety. Instead of including the great world religions in the curriculum as resources for these topics, it is better, because of the greater validity of their knowledge, to use the resources of the natural and social sciences and humanities for both religious and nonreligious students.

The main difference, in addition to the fact that Beck’s proposals are all in the conceptual area, is that for him the criterion of the worth of religions and education is success in promoting basic values, rather than basic rights, duties, and obligations. Beck did acknowledge “the importance of protecting the world environment,”67 but any consideration of this will require the principle of respect for nature to mandate duties and obligations, and it will have to deal with questions of justice, equity, and fundamental human rights such as the rights to life, sustenance, shelter, freedom, equal consideration, and security, including the human right to have a home on earth in the sense claimed by William Blackstone when he said, “Access to a livable environment must be conceived as a right which imposes upon everyone a correlative moral obligation to respect,” and which requires legal control of natural resources.68 Only as the young learn not to “choose a world view and way of life most appropriate to their need"69 but to fulfill their duties and obligations to the natural world and other people can they acquire the natural and cosmic piety that are the proper criteria for the success of any education for the religious aspect of human existence.

These considerations are also compatible with the apocalyptic jeremiad about the environmental crisis with which Waks began his article and with the closing prescription for a religious formulation that gives “critical respect” to the achievements of science even while indicating that there is more to become aware of than allowed by its, modes of “rational thinking.”70 The requirements of a due respect for nature and the search for the conditions under which the earth can continue to be a home for all human beings, including those that require legal establishment, seem to meet Waks’s demand for a ‘life transcending narrow personal, social, religious, and national boundaries, and materialistic values such as greed and domination.”71

The difference is that Waks believes there are mystical, nonrational modes of awareness that exist “beyond” the cognitive processes of rational, conceptual thought that can be induced by the myths and rituals of the great religions. Because consciousness always has to be conscious of something to be conscious, however, bodily, perceptual awareness of things precedes conceptualization or conceptual processes simply become alienated from the world. What there is to be known in addition to what can be known through the methods of the natural and social sciences and humanities is the things in the natural world in their qualitative suchness as encountered in the arts, crafts, trades, sports, and outdoors.

Emphasizing them in schooling to furnish the basis for respect for nature and natural piety might increase the incidence of nature mysticism in the sense defined by Taylor and expressed in song by Woody Guthrie. It would seem that only out of such a relation with the natural world can an orientation of reverence for the universe arise. Although it cannot be doubted that there are specific modes of consciousness that are developed and enhanced by participation in rituals,72 such rituals do not in any case belong in schools. Genuine worship involves a general orientation toward the universe that is the outcome of a love for the natural world that the proposals herein seek to promote. If one has to feel and be at home in the universe before the general attunement of reverence can arise, it is an adult achievement that is unlikely to be promoted through a study of religions in schools. This is why the question of education and the religious is too important to be left to religions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 89 Number 1, 1987, p. 69-90
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 525, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:29:09 AM

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