I have a few atheist friends who seem fond of bashing religion on their Facebook pages. While their attacks most often reflect a pitiable ignorance of what religion, specifically Christianity, is about, one meme that is often repeated irritates me more than most of the others. The theme of these irritating (and wrongheaded) attacks revolves around a perception that religion and education are mutually exclusive or, that somehow, religion is opposed to “real” education. Not only is this way of thinking just wrong, both historically and in a contemporary setting, but, I find this accusation particularly offensive as a United Methodist, a church whose core DNA has always included support and encouragement of education.
Obviously, a blog is not the place for a lengthy treatise on education, but let’s look at a few facts.
Two thousand years ago when education belonged to the rich, it was the Jewish high priest who mandated that schools should be opened (in 64 AD) because the Torah required literacy and study.
These schools were not particularly successful, but the literacy rate was still triple that of neighboring Egypt (3% vs. 1%).
A thousand years after that, it was again the church, this time the Roman Catholic Church, which, in 1179 mandated that free education be provided for the poor.
In fact, until 1600 nearly all universities in Europe were built, taught, and funded by the church and, during the “Dark Ages” it was the monasteries that preserved the wisdom and knowledge of the ancient world.
Had it not been for the church, what we know of Socrates, Plato and many others would have been lost.
In the Islamic world, education was supported and funded by the government, but, Islam being a theocratic system of government, this too was, essentially the church.
Throughout the Reformation, the majority of universities remained church supported organizations.
In the American Colonies, and then the newly birthed United States, there was little or no opportunity for higher education unless one returned to Europe.
When it became obvious that institutions of higher learning should be built, who do you suppose it was who raised the money and built them?
What schools did the church build?
You might have heard of some of them: Harvard, William & Mary, Yale, College of New Jersey (which is now Princeton), Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Oberlin, Fordham, Duke and host of others.
In fact, between 1636 and 1861 nearly 800 colleges were founded, and of these, 182 still survive.
Of the 182 surviving colleges and universities, only 21 were built by states or municipalities, the rest were built by the church through a variety of denominations.
As for us United Methodists, our founder, John Wesley, started building schools in 1739 in Bristol for the children of coal miners and in the United States we authorized the construction of our first college in 1784, eight years before we even held our first General Conference in 1792.
In 1820 and again in 1824 our General Conference instructed each Annual Conference to establish schools, literary institutions and colleges and they did.
By the time of the American Civil War, the Methodist Church had established over 200 such institutions.
Our Evangelical United Brethren brothers were a smaller church but they still managed to build eight colleges by the middle of the twentieth century.
In 1968 these two churches merged to form The United Methodist Church and together we are now connected to 122 colleges and universities in the Untied States including research universities, seminaries, historically Black colleges and universities (including a medical school), and two-year colleges, as well as 358 post-secondary institutions outside the United States.
If we were to include elementary schools and others, this number would be absolutely astounding.
I’m sorry friends, if you think that people of faith don’t believe in education you’re ignoring the facts. But if you think that atheists can do better, I invite you to go ahead and prove it.
But first, you have a whole lot of catching up to do.