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Teaching About Religion

By Donna Freitas & Andrew J. Rotherham — January 07, 2004 4 min read
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We must do this to ensure that the wall between church and state does not become a wall separating future generations from the well-rounded education necessary to understand today's world.

The second anniversary this past September of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ongoing war in Iraq have prompted renewed debate over what schools should teach about such events. Not surprisingly, the discussion breaks down along predictable ideological lines. Lost in the axiomatic back and forth is serious discussion about a too-often-overlooked component of American social studies curricula: how and what to teach about religion in public schools.

Religion is an essential factor affecting—in both positive and tragic ways—the course of history, culture, politics, science, and world events. Yet we are raising an entire generation of young people who have discussed neither their own religions nor those of others in an academic setting. Our students have been willed a world fraught with religious strife, yet we are leaving them uneducated about what that means or how to deal with it.

We cannot understand world history, or put into full perspective the events of 9/11, the political situation in the Middle East, and many other global conflicts, without at least a basic understanding of major religions, their significant internal contours, and their relationship to one another. This means that it is irresponsible to leave religion outside the classroom.

The academic standards of most states make reference to religion and religious history, but in practice teachers are reluctant to take these issues on in any depth. Educators are understandably worried about attacks and lawsuits from organizations and advocacy groups at the extremes of the ideological spectrum that are too ready to pounce on perceived adversaries with even the flimsiest cause. In addition, there is insufficient training, curriculum support, and resources for teachers who wish to tackle these issues in any depth. Frequently, what does exist is milquetoast at best because it is sanitized for any hint of controversy or political correctness. This curricular problem touches many subjects, as the education historian Diane Ravitch recently documented in The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.

Too often, moreover, the political right dominates discussions about religion. And its agenda focuses on prayer in school, displays of religious symbols and religious expression, and school vouchers, rather than ensuring that students have a solid understanding of the world’s major religions, as well as a capacity to intelligently discuss the role of religion in politics and global affairs.

At their core, many of these issues are largely resolved. Under the leadership of then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, during the Clinton administration, a range of religious groups and experts developed guidelines for religious expression in public schools. But it is the practical application of these guidelines by teachers, particularly when it comes to social studies curricula, that presents the greater challenge.

We must empower teachers to distinguish between religion as evangelism and religion as a valid, intellectual discipline appropriate for public school classrooms.

To move beyond the roadblocks and fear related to integrating the study of religion into public school curricula, several steps are necessary. First, through better teacher training, we must empower teachers to distinguish between religion as evangelism and religion as a valid, intellectual discipline as appropriate for public school classrooms as the study of English or science. Likewise, teachers must be able to engage these issues in more depth than as topics for politically correct celebrations of “multiculturalism.” This means that their training must focus on content as well as methodological approaches to examining religious issues.

With better training, teachers can in turn raise the level of classroom dialogue about religion beyond purely emotion- charged conversations or personal testimonials, and toward lively and intelligent debate in the way that other politically charged issues inspire. Third and most important, the general public, and culture warriors in particular, must acknowledge a crucial distinction: Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching religion or teaching personal spirituality. There is an essential difference between teaching the role of religion in history, politics, or a particular religious tradition and teaching students to hold a particular set of religious beliefs.

The events on which we reflect as this year ends and another begins should remind us all of the tremendous impact of religious conflict on our world. They should also remind us of how many in our own culture rely on religion to transcend tragedy and begin anew. We do not advocate separate religious classes in schools or any other singular solution. But we believe that the religious component of current events and historical issues can and must be addressed in an academic setting.

We must do this to ensure that the wall between church and state does not become a wall separating future generations from the well-rounded education necessary to understand today’s world.

Donna Freitas is a professor of religious studies at St. Michael’s College, in Colchester, Vt., and the author of Save the Date: A Spirituality of Dating, Love, Dinner, and the Divine. Andrew J. Rotherham is the director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, in Washington.

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