Should religion be taught in public schools?
Yes, but not in the ways you might think.
There has been much publicity in recent years highlighting how ignorant U.S. citizens are about religion. The 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (the most recent available of its type), for example, revealed that only 66 percent of Christians surveyed knew that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, fewer than half of Americans knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and even fewer knew that Shiva and Vishnu were associated with Hinduism.
The Pew survey reflects the same kinds of knowledge about religion that students might learn in U.S. public schools. For example, in nearly all world history or world culture textbooks, students will find a “religion unit” with the primary content represented through three to five pages of multicolored charts representing the “major world religions” and highlighting their “facts” such as number of adherents, geographical location, founder or major figures, scripture, ritual practices, and beliefs. Here students learn about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Five Pillars of Islam, and the 10 Commandments of Judaism and Christianity.
Teaching about religion through the isolated lens of rituals, beliefs, and practices is problematic."
At first glance, this may sound like a good vehicle to strengthen knowledge about religion, but the limitation of this approach is quickly revealed when reading the morning news. How will knowing the Four Noble Truths help students understand how some Buddhists in Myanmar are actively engaged in the persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims? Or how does knowing the 10 Commandments help explain why 80 percent of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election? Or how will knowing the Five Pillars of Islam help explain the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan?
The limitations are even more apparent when considering history. How can knowing the Christian Beatitudes explain the Crusades or the Inquisition or Christian support for chattel slavery?
It is important to note, of course, that there are counter-examples for each of the illustrations I cite. Though some Buddhists in Myanmar are promoting the persecution of Muslims, many others are opposing these actions. And while it is true that a majority of Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump, many others did not, and understanding the diverse reasons for each of these actions is important. Similarly, many Muslims in Afghanistan and throughout the world oppose the Taliban.
These facts help to highlight why teaching about religion through the isolated lens of rituals, beliefs, and practices is problematic.
As an alternative, the American Academy of Religion and the National Council for the Social Studies promote a different way to teach about religion that focuses on giving students the tools to understand the complex roles that religions play in human experience. (I collaborated with both organizations to produce and utilize these guidelines.) In this approach, students learn the following four fundamental tenets of the academic study of religion. These tenets challenge many of the commonly held assumptions about religion that teaching about rituals, beliefs, and practices reproduce.
1. There is a distinction between personal or communal religious convictions and the study of diverse assertions that constitutes the academic study of religion. This distinction honors individual faith stances but doesn’t presume that any one stance represents the whole of the tradition itself. The academic study of religion is the appropriate and constitutionally sound way to teach about religion in public schools.
2. Religions are internally diverse as opposed to uniform. Their internal diversity extends beyond differing sects of a tradition (e.g., Mormons, Quakers, and Roman Catholics for Christianity; Mahayana and Theravada for Buddhism; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist for Judaism). There is diversity even within a particular religious community because religions are living traditions interpreted and practiced through the lens of adherents. In this way, it is always problematic to assert that “Buddhists are nonviolent” or “Christians oppose same-sex marriage.” Such declarations are always too simplistic to capture the rich and dynamic diversity of religious expression and belief.
3. Human interpretation and experience of religion evolves and changes in response to differing social and historical contexts. For example, in the 1970s, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a series of resolutions affirming the moral legitimacy of abortion and supporting Roe v. Wade. In 2003, however, the SBC officially retracted all past resolutions that gave moral sanction to abortion. Southern Baptists themselves can (and do) debate which of these stances is the “correct” one, but the question for students of religion is different. Our question is: What were the social and historical conditions that gave rise to the first resolution, and what shifts led to the 2003 reversal?
4. Religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience and can’t be isolated in a so-called “private” sphere of faith. The belief that religion is a private matter and separable from the “public” realm of political and economic activity is a persistent one and it had a profound influence on the discipline of international relations. For decades, foreign service officers and diplomats considered religion the “third rail,” with which they shouldn’t engage. It wasn’t until the rise of liberation theology in Latin America, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the Polish Solidarity movement in the second half of the 20th century that international relations theorists began to rethink this tenet of strict separation. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry famously commented that he wished he had majored in comparative religions to learn the tools needed to address the complex roles that religions play in contemporary global affairs.
We at the Religious Literacy Project—which seeks to advance the public understanding of religion with special attention to power, peace, and conflict—at Harvard Divinity School support and extend this approach by partnering with teachers to create new resources for classroom use and by offering a weeklong summer training institute.
Giving students the tools to better understand the complex and powerful roles that religions play in human experience has the potential to help mitigate bigotry based on misrepresentation, while simultaneously enhancing empathy and understanding across differences of all kinds. In our current climate of extreme partisanship (a climate that today’s students experience as “normal”), we need all the empathy and understanding we can muster.