How to Teach Religion

In the controversies that occur in American public schools over textbook quality or how to teach evolution, we might be missing something important. When progressives talk about religion in school we often react very negatively. There’s a valid reason for this, of course, but the result of this is pretty troublesome for American children. So argues Melinda Anderson over at the Atlantic: American kids don’t know anything about religion:

An old rule of etiquette often taught to children from a young age is to never talk about religion in polite company. This sentiment carries over into public schools, where teaching about the world’s religions often sparks controversy and charges from some parents and activists that classrooms are an inappropriate place for this discussion. Yet educators frequently counter that a public-school curriculum is incomplete without religious literacy, which the American public sorely lacks. According to a 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, in a country of many faiths and beliefs, there is a stunning absence of knowledge of the world’s religions. And where better to discuss a thorny topic like religion, some say, than in a public-school classroom.

But all is not lost. Anderson interviews education journalist Linda K. Wertheimer, the author of Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Wertheimer suggests things might be getting better.

The 1963 court ruling prohibiting teacher-led prayer gradually led to bigger efforts to educate children about many religions. But there is a real fear of proselytizing when it comes to classes about the Bible as literature or history. Parents should be the most concerned about those types of courses. Those classes can be taught objectively, and in fact, I found such an example at Lumberton High School, the target of so much fuss over a teacher’s lessons on Islam.

The biggest fear about world religion courses is how teachers are teaching about Islam and whether they are sugar-coating radical Islam. Some critics have questioned whether teachers are indoctrinating children in Islam. The irony is that most teachers in this country reflect the nation’s demographics. Most of them are white and female, and many of them are Christian. It’s unlikely they would try to convert children to Islam. The key to preventing classes from turning into preaching is training the teachers.

But teachers should absolutely teach children about religion.

This does not mean teaching religion as historical or scientific fact. Children should, it seems, learn about the world’s different religions and where they have spread and who practices them. This does not mean there is any place to teach children that the world was created by an all-powerful deity in a matter of days. Nor does it mean that schools should teach that Christianity is superior, indeed the only true religion, even if their parents believe that and teach that it home.

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But a frequent concern cited by parents, both religious and secular, is that children today lack “Biblical literacy.” They don’t know what the Bible is about. And other children don’t know either. This means that in many communities only the evangelical Christian kids know who the 12 apostles were or what a Pharisee is.

Biblical literacy doesn’t mean believing that John 2:1-11, Jesus turning water into wine, is important because Jesus is the messiah and we must all worship him. No, this is important because Christianity is an important part of western civilization and the bible is the foundational text of that religion.

It’s also worth pointing out here that the concerns cited by citizens sort of depend on where in the country the discussions are occurring. Despite the worry of many conservatives about Common Core, local governments still run the schools.

Interestingly, those driving that narrative tend to largely come from outside the schools at the center of the controversies. The “who” or “what” depends on the region. In Tampa, David Caton, president of the Florida Family Association, was one of the opponents against a guest speaker on Islam at an area high school. So was Terry Kemple, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida. Both have been involved in campaigns against gay marriage. They referred to Christianity becoming a second-class citizen in schools but so did assorted speakers at school board meetings. In Wichita, Kansas, a lawmaker brought up that complaint, but some parents concerned about lessons on Islam weren’t worried about Christianity’s role in schools.

But she is right to point out that American school children are really missing something pretty important in school if they don’t learn in 12 years of public education factual truth about the world’s religions and what they teach.

Religion matters, for history, for culture, and even for law and decision making. Indeed, we might well be able to get away from slightly foolish question about how to teach biology and history if we just seriously devoted ourselves to teaching the facts about the world’s religions. It’s hard for a child to believe that the world was created in a week if he knows there are other eight other religions out there with equally improbable creation explanations.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer