Saturday, May 8, 2010

cat's cradle in a religious society

Last week I was called in to the assistant principal's office to talk about a writing assignment I gave my students. We're reading Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and in the book there is an invented religion, a forbidden religion that is all the more attractive because it's forbidden. Bokononism is a joke. It's full of silly little proverbs and senseless parables and the satire is on any religion itself.

So I asked my students to write about why people may be skeptical of organized religion and why people may choose to follow a religion. We talked about the difference between organized religion and personal faith. A separate writing prompt asked them to invent a religion - with no worries about it actually catching on - and I made clear that this prompt was given because in the book, a man invents a religion.

Anyway, after twenty or twenty-five minutes of focused writing, we discussed what we'd written. Most students chose the religion prompts to write about (there were three other prompts on the list), so our discussion centered on opinions about religion and faith. The discussions were honest and thoughtful. The list of reasons why people are skeptical of organized religion were typical: conflicting passages in a holy book, hypocrisy close to home or seen in religious leaders. And as for why people choose a religion: family tradition, a sense of community or belonging, insurance for the afterlife. But then they also delved into faith: that leap we make to believe what we cannot fully comprehend. Most discussion was thoughtful and respectful, though there are arguments - always points of disagreement when you talk about religion or faith.

I learned  a lot. The majority of my students are Muslim and while we never branched into a comparison and contrast of major world religions, I did see an everyday-ness to their religion that I don't think I'd find in an average North American classroom. Granted, not all of my Muslim students are strict. There is a spectrum to most religions: how closely you choose to adhere to texts and tenets, whether or not you intrepret scriptures literally or account for historical and cultural factors. Just how ______ are you? Can you pick and choose? Can you be Muslim and not pause at each call to prayer?

(I'll admit that I expected the society to shut down during prayer times, especially since there are mosques scattered conveniently and most malls have prayer rooms for men and women. The first time we were out shopping and heard a call to prayer, I was shocked to see all Muslim men and women continue eating their meals, buying their clothes, chatting on their cell phones).

Anyway. During one class period, a student mentioned that you might doubt parts of your religion if you line up verses that seem contradictory. Another student immediately argued that nothing - nothing - could be contradictory in the Qur'an. The argument went nowhere. I tend to think there are always questions believers of any religion have about their scriptures. I stepped in to say that, and that I don't think asking a question is always wrong: that questioning can lead to searching for an answer, which can lead to a strengthened faith. If the questions pile up, then a person might begin to look at other beliefs. A few students agreed. But the one repeated that you could not doubt a word of the Qur'an.

At the end of the day, I checked my school email and saw there was concern about the writing prompts I'd assigned. I went to the office. I knew that you could not say anything against Islam or the Emir of Kuwait, but I hadn't thought that the phrasing of my prompts was inflammatory. In fact, Islam wasn't the only religion discussed.

What I learned is that in Islam, you cannot ask questions. That's an uncomplicated way of putting it, a short answer later given by a Muslim friend. Asking questions - for example, pointing out contradictions between different verses - is not allowed. You follow because you follow. Okay, so this clearly is not how all Muslims live and believe. But since not questioning is a religious expectation, my prompt asking students to think about why people might be skeptical of organized religion was inappropriate. You are simply not supposed to be skeptical. And asking students to "create a religion" just as Bokonon did in the novel is probably close to sacrilegeous. Or, as our Arabic principal put it when I apologized to him the next day, "It is very dangerous."

So I wasn't in trouble, exactly. The issue is an issue because, as my assistant principal kindly reminded me, "This is a religious society." There is evidence of Islamic practices everywhere in this country, from the absence of pork and the presence of abayas to laws allowing men multiple wives. But I'd never sat around and thought: I'm smack in the middle of a religious society. Afterall, I can still practice my own different faith, even attend a Christian church. But as a teacher, I need to remember that the Ministry of Education isn't informed by current Western curriculum, but by respecting Islam. I honestly did not know that the prompts might offend. I told my students that the next day, when I un-assigned the religious prompts. And I assured them that my intent was not to offend or to suggest that they create a religion to replace Islam. Most students were understanding.

But now I am still wondering: Is questioning or doubting my own Christian faith also wrong? Am I to take the view of my Muslim student who repeated that you cannot ask a question if you believe? Or is God patient with my questions and doubts - and is it okay if some of my questions are never completely answered, if some of my doubts are not satisfied by assurance? Can I still claim my faith then?


Clare said...

i am curious, was the book an approved/assigned book by the school? it seems the book itself was the root of the problem...and if so, is this a society where they would ban certain books? but i love how kids (most) have such an openness to question, to try, to think. it's nice that they were understanding of what you were trying to do.

jsmarslender said...

The book isn't currently banned. There are different things that schools are not permitted to teach or discuss (the Holocaust, for example) but the list of banned books changes from year to year. Also, enforcement of censorship is not always consistent, either in schools or in bookstores (very, very few here in Kuwait anyway). "Cat's Cradle" is not currently banned and I'll be teaching it to avoid any more controversy, focusing on human pride (leading sometimes to stupidity) and warnings about technology.

Joie said...

Sarah, the book of Job in the Bible is what first comes to my mind as I read this post. The God of the Bible is a God who answers our questions. Job threw out so many questions throughout the first 37 chapters of the book of Job. Doubting, painful, hard questions, and all of his friends and even his wife told him to stop questioning God! They told him to shut up and just take it or to curse God and die. But Job kept asking God questions, pleading with God to answer him. And then in chapter 38, God answers him, and speaks of the friends as those who have 'darkened [his] council'. God is not afraid of our questions - he WILL answer us, and by the way that he honored and blessed Job after answering him is proof that God was honored by Job's questions. I hope that encourages you. Keep asking questions and keep enjoying learning as you go- about this world, about other religions, about the culture in which you live. I'm sure you know all of this - and thank you for sharing about your experience.

Angela and David Kidd said...

I've got no answers to your questions as I'm not a very religious person and immediately recoil at the thought of not being able to question my faith or religious doctrines. But I did want to say that your posts make me excited to find out how your attempt at a first novel are going. You've really got such an amazing talent for words.

Anonymous said...

Paul defines faith as belief in things unseen. Even Jesus questioned. It's human nature and God knows what that's about since he made us. Please notice that after questioning God on the Mount of Olives, Jesus's faith reached a new level so that he was able to endure what he had to endure. Remember Thomas, the disciple, who wouldn't believe in Christ's resurrection until he put his hand into Jesus's wounds. He went on to die spreading the Gospel in Persia and India. God gave us free choice, He doesn't want us to be robots, he could have made us like that, but wanted us to choose for ourselves. You learn and grow by questioning.