How Should We Teach Religion in Public School? January 8, 2014

How Should We Teach Religion in Public School?

Religion & Politics asked an excellent question — “Should we teach religion in public schools? And if so, how?” — and got responses from a variety of panelists:

Mark A. Chancey, a professor of Religious Studies, believes that the Bible is “worthy of study,” as do I, and he laments how often the line has been crossed from objective analysis to proselytizing:

Using open records requests, [the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund] obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts.

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas.

Cynthia N. Dunbar, an advisor to the provost of Liberty University and a former member of the infamous Texas State Board of Education, seems to understand the difference between education and indoctrination… but then offers examples that show she really doesn’t get it:

If, for example, a comparative religion course teaches students that the Christian religion says Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father, then its appropriateness within socialized education would be based on its underlying purpose. Is it being taught simply for the students to learn what is believed within the Christian religion, or is it being taught for the truth of the matter asserted, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God the Father? The former would be an acceptable form of education, while the latter would be an unacceptable form of indoctrination. If this were the only inquiry, then the debate about religious instruction would be simple.

While we were dealing with the adoption of essential knowledge and skills in biology for Texas students, the issue of macro-evolution became hotly debated. When the board presented the academically unbiased position that all sides of any issue could be discussed within the classroom, the Darwinian evolutionists were livid. They demanded that nothing but their explanation for the origin of life be considered. This issue encompassed numerous sub-issues. For example, when the board held that students were to study the complexity of the cell, the Darwinian evolutionists were equally upset… There already was an approved religion of secularism being taught in the classroom.

In short, she believes we shouldn’t indoctrinate kids, and that means we can’t teach evidence-based science in science class.

Joseph Laycock, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and a former public school teacher, bemoans the religious illiteracy in our society:

Without some understanding the world’s religious traditions, students are ill equipped to understand literature, history, art, or the current political landscape. Religious illiteracy not only deprives students of the cultural richness that is their birthright as human beings, it makes for an uninformed electorate and produces students who are less equipped to compete in a global marketplace. Finally, examining other religions allows students to cultivate moral agency. Empowering students to ask “big questions” facilitates a higher quality of life.

The purpose of teaching about religion is not to allow students to shop for a new religion. The point is to empower students with useful knowledge about perspectives and worldviews other than their own.

Finally, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Annie Laurie Gaylor doesn’t have a problem with the teaching of religion, per se, but she has seen plenty of instances where it wasn’t done well:

It is in this context that we must consider whether typical public school teachers — particularly teachers at the lower level — can truly be trusted to be objective about “teaching” religion… [FFRF handles] more than 2,000 complaints a year by members of the public concerned about violations of the separation between church and state, and the vast majority of these concern violations in our public schools.

Devotional instruction and religious exercises, of course, are very different from academic instruction — learning “about” religion. But the very way this question is posed, using the singular “religion,” rather than plural “religions,” reveals one of the innate dangers of such instruction. Supreme Court litigant Vashti McCollum often responded, in response to the question about teaching religion in the schools: If we teach religion, whose religion? It’s nearly always the dominant religion that is “taught,” with token references to other religions thrown in.

I’m all for the teaching of comparative religions at the high school level, but it’s a course that would really have to have a standardized curriculum and that explores the world’s most popular beliefs (including non-belief). The goal is to make students fluent in what various faiths believe, not to convince them that any one of them is more correct than another. If you had a great teacher for that course, you would have no idea which beliefs he or she subscribes to at the end of the year. Those teachers, unfortunately, are hard to come by.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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