Religious Education and the Cusp of Metaphor

Laurencekirk Episcopalian ChurchAbout ten years ago, while I was working on a research project involving a local Christian church’s district in the U.S., I had an interesting conversation with the minister in charge of religious education. He related to me that the average American’s religious training ends at the fifth-grade level. While I dutifully wrote this down, I don’t think the implications of it really sank in at the time.

Fifth grade, around ages ten and eleven, is when American schoolwork starts to develop students’ ability to understand metaphors. That doesn’t mean that younger children can’t grasp metaphors in some cases, but that this skill has not yet been fully developed. Ten-year-old children often lack the ability to move from linear thought (I like bicycles) to abstract thought (for a ten year old, bicycles are a symbol of freedom and independence).

This literalness often carries over into the public debates on religion.

Are You More Faithful than a Fifth Grader?

Taking the above two facts together helps explain why so many people–religious or not–take the interpretation of religious texts so literally. For many who attended Sunday School, the last time they were involved with religious education was a time when metaphor was a cutting-edge struggle, and problems were solved by reading authoritative books on the subject.

Yet the impact of this training on our “everyday” theology is immense. Because a fifth-grade understanding of religion is the average, this is the level at which most of the dialogue takes place. This doesn’t only apply to religiously-affiliated people, either. For many atheists, this same level of “it is or it isn’t” is applied across the board to religion.

A ten year old’s it-is-or-it-isn’t approach might not be the best way to engage people’s ineffable experiences. While such an approach certainly makes dialogue easier, it relegates “religion” to the same type of cognitive category as “lunch.”

In some religious contexts, such an approach to theology is not only acceptable, but required. For example, the literal interpretation of religious texts is one of the general requirements of fundamentalism.

Social Science and Religion

Anthropology, by examining religion relationally, seeks to understand religion by understanding its social meaning. It ignores the religious questions, such as whether the statement “there is a God” is true (or in what ways it is “true”). The discipline instead asks “how do those religious experiences affect people’s lives and communities?”

Because we dodge some of the questions, sometimes it seems that anthropology (as a whole) doubts that anything religious or spiritual even exists. While that may be true for some anthropologists as individuals, I think it would be fairer to say that the discipline of anthropology is being circumspect and intellectually honest. If we can speak of anthropology as a whole, it recognizes that both its interests and methods must focus on the social and cultural aspects of religion.

Anthropologists are required, by our very methods, to maintain a certain equanimity when doing research. Telling someone that they’re simply wrong, or becoming visibly upset, is a poor way to elicit honest responses.


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