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Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools

May 10, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

I listened in the other day on a conversation among students sparked by a news report on a proposed Alabama bill that would allow churches to teach religion classes to public school students for credit. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/alabama-bill-religion-class_n_1294976.html]. The teaching would take place off campus, would require parental and local school board approval, and the parents and churches would have to cover any cost incurred, including transportation. The conversation revolved mainly around the question of what should be taught in the public schools about religion, if anything at all. Though I have strong ideas on this topic, I remained an eaves dropper on this conversation, both to avoid professorial intrusion into the situation, and also because I have an outlet for my thoughts in this blog spot. So here goes…

Let me begin by saying that this question is more than merely academic or theoretical for me. It engages me directly, as a father of a public school child, as a citizen taxpayer, an educator, and as a religiously affiliating person. Early in my career, I taught World Religions in a secular (though private) school and history/social studies in public schools. Raised a Christian (Mennonite), I am the male partner in an interfaith marriage, a gentile father in a modern Jewish family. We are members of a small Reform congregation that is situated within an overwhelmingly Christian Midwestern town. My daughter has always been the only Jewish girl in her public school classes through the years, and one of only a few other-than-Christian students in her school.

While for religious minorities it is often most expedient to support a blanket “no religion” policy for the public school curriculum, I don’t agree. Teaching about religion should not be ignored because, as contributions to The Denial File have repeatedly underlined, religion is one of the most pervasive elements of individual and communal human life. An educated human mind inevitably seeks answers to deep questions of purpose and meaning in life, and most people naturally turn to the teachings and practices of religion in response to those questions.

Starting at the earliest levels, we can help students recognize why people take their religious beliefs so seriously. At the same time, with increasing sophistication across the curriculum, we can help students recognize that by its very nature, religious beliefs and practices are always tentative and partial. Individuals and communities of people will naturally find some types of beliefs and practices to be more satisfying for themselves than others. It is one of our strengths as a democratic people that we do not always line up together in complete agreement, but that we strive to keep the conversation vibrant and alive.

Specific content of teaching on religion in the public schools will vary, depending on the grade level. Likewise, there is a good case to be made for infusing such learning throughout the curriculum, as it naturally arises, rather than offering specific courses. But two points should guide us throughout: 1) teaching about religion should not be ignored, and 2) teaching about religion must underscore the value of religious pluralism.

Far from being a necessary threat to strong religious faith, recognition of this fundamental pluralism (including strong doubt, agnosticism and atheism) yields the most valuable opportunity we have to learn from each other, and to develop and mature in our encounter with life’s deepest questions. All religious faiths (and most secular social philosophies) place some form of the Golden Rule (mutuality in respect and concern) at the heart of their teachings. If we have the courage to infuse this basic teaching throughout the public school curriculum, not only our children but our larger democratic social institutions will greatly benefit.

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5 comments

  1. It’s important not to smudge the line between religious teaching and teaching about religions.

    For believers, items of faith are not tentative or partial – one person’s belief system is, de facto, different from those following another religion. This problem is not solved by positing some form of common ‘Golden Rule’ because there are too many specific beliefs in each religion that defy the golden rule. The devil is in the details.

    It should be noted that science is no freer from dogma than religion.

    Belief-systems are sociological, psychological, mythical, anthropological.


  2. [...] Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools (thedenialfile.wordpress.com) [...]


  3. Jeremy, this is at least the second comment where you express my own point of view for me – so thank you!

    We cannot forget that the needs that these beliefs feed are psychological (e.g. emotional), and they primarily operate outside of our conscious awareness (that is how these cultural ‘defense mechanisms’ work). Few adults can cope with seeing reality for what it is – why should we expect children to do so? And what enlightened soul could teach them without bias? In my view, this stuff should be kept out of the schools. I am a firm believer that we should encourage one another to tolerate as much reality as the other could stand to bear – ‘learning from the various religions/scientistic dogmas’ seems to be nothing more than giving someone options about what their defensive psychological structure will be. Essentially: “here children: choose your poison.” Anyway, that’s just my view.


  4. [...] Teaching About Religion in the Public Schools (thedenialfile.wordpress.com) [...]


  5. The community pressure against teaching of religion in the public schools is only one subtype of a more general “forbidden subject” and that is the inquiry of the nature of our own consciousness, mind, and experience of existence. Introspection itself is the forbidden subject. Public Schools are to teach only the outer world– only things outside the skin, or the most basic topics of health, like exercise and nutrition. I’ll leave it to you to guess why the powers of corporations and states are aligned with organized religion today on this position, just as they have been since the days of the holy roman empire.



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