Religion and Education: Towards Religious Literacy

Education is my thing. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of education, and was a high school teacher back in London before I defected to the USA. I care deeply that young people receive an excellent education which prepares them to be master of their own minds and encourages them to have an open, inquiring attitude toward the world.

I also want them to learn about religion. Religion is one of the central forces which has shaped our history and our culture, and it plays an inextricable role in political and civic life today. You simply cannot understand human beings – their past, present, or future – without having at least some basic understanding of religion. And, of course, religious liberty means very little if children are not exposed to the major religious faiths and the arguments which they present in their favor: without knowledge of the alternatives, young people have no real choice when it comes to religious beliefs.

You cannot trust parents to teach their kids about religion in an even-handed way: they are likely going to be interested in raising their kids in the same belief system that they hold. Nor can you simply leave it to churches and other religious organizations: they too are partisan. Therefore, it seems to me, public schools (if we are to have them at all – that’s a debate for another time) are the best place to teach kids about religion. With appropriate oversight, public schools could, in principle, develop a religious studies curriculum which presents the major world religions to students in a historical and sociological way, explaining how they developed, what role they have played historically, and their position in the world today.

This position is essentially the one held by Harvard professor Diane L. Moore, whose paper “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach” provides a great introduction to this perspective.  Moore argues the following:

First, there exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe; second, one of the most troubling and urgent consequences of this illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas; and third, it is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a nonsectarian perspective in primary and secondary schools.

I buy all her basic premises, particularly the argument that religious illiteracy can lead to prejudice and that sensitive teaching about religion from a “cultural studies” perspective might alleviate this problem.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, such an approach is not illegal in the USA. The landmark ruling Abington v. Schempp, which outlined the boundaries between church and state in public schools, included a section specificaly outlining what is permissable. Justice Thomas C. Clark wrote:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may  be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. (American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public School in the United States, see p. 7)

One could say that the court affirmed the right to teach about religion, as long as such teaching about religion was meaningfully different to the teaching of religion.

This view – a view which I believe has solid educational and legal grounding – has interesting implications for many of the debates around the place of religion in public schools which often exercise the atheist blogosphere. For instance, while the Cranston Prayer Banner was clearly an endorsement by the school of a religious view, it might be possible to mount a defense of a public school trip to see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the grounds that it promotes religious literacy. Were, for instance, the performance offered as part of a broader curriculum of religious studies, and explicitly framed as an opportunity to investigate how religion affects popular culture, the trip might be acceptable (clearly all these caveats were not present in the recent case in Arkansas).

Clearly, the line between teaching about religion and the teaching of religion is not always clear. The difficulty of ensuring you don’t overstep this line was evident in a recent case in which middle school students from Wellesley MA were taken, as part of a social studies class, to view a prayer service at a local Mosque. Several sixth-graders decided to participate in the service, after apparently being invited to do so, and controversy erupted:

It seems that observing the prayer service would be a legitimate secular educational activity, but participating in the service crosses the line. Murky waters. But what is not murky, to me, is that students at public schools should receive sensitive, secular education in world religions.

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