When Jodi Ide, a teacher at Brighton High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, approached her principal about teaching a world religions elective, his response was unequivocal—I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole.
The principal’s response is not uncommon, says the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute’s Charles C. Haynes. “We have a long history of getting [religion] wrong in public schools,” he says. That history can make any mention of religion in school a source of anxiety.
“There are communities where minority religious groups, for example, are very happy that the majority religion is no longer imposed in the schools, which was true in many schools for a long time—and still is in some cases,” says Haynes, who also coauthored Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools. School administrators may be wary of backlash from parents if they introduce a course with “religion” in the title. Students may fear that they’ll be forced to reveal or defend their beliefs.
Mark Chancey understands these concerns better than most people. A professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Chancey worked with the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund to produce Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-12. In the report, Chancey concludes that, “Intentionally or not, Bible courses are often taught from religious perspectives, with the result that some students find their own beliefs endorsed in the classroom while others find theirs disparaged or ignored.”
Despite troubling precedents, both Chancey and Haynes agree with the sentiment expressed in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington School District v. Schempp ruling: “[I]t 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.” In other words, teaching about world religions prepares students to be good global citizens. “The world’s getting smaller all the time. If we want to forge a path together in a more pluralistic country, we need to understand each other,” says Chancey. “And if we as a nation want to understand how to relate to the rest of the globe, then we need to have a richer and deeper understanding of different cultures—including various religions.”
What We Don’t Know
Achieving that understanding means overcoming significant knowledge deficits. Americans were, on average, able to answer only 16 of 32 questions correctly on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life in 2010—a shortcoming Haynes attributes to a lack of education about religion in schools.
“Every other diversity has gotten attention,” says Haynes. “But until recently … there was very little inclusion of religious diversity in that discussion, which is extraordinary because religious differences are one of the most difficult to navigate.” Many schools adopt Bible courses that, even if conducted constitutionally, fail to expose students to diverse religious and nonreligious views.
That’s a problem, says Chancey, who believes teaching a Bible course without acknowledging other scriptural and spiritual literature “sends a signal of cultural privilege that is not the message we need to be promoting in public schools.”
It also fails to prepare students for the world they will live in as adults, says Haynes. “[The United States] is right now the most religiously diverse place in the world, so if any country needs to be taking this seriously, it should be ours.”
Thinking of teaching a comparative religion course? Keep these tips in mind.
- DON’T ask students to reveal their religious or nonreligious affiliations.
- DON’T privilege one religion over others.
- DON’T forget to include nonreligious worldviews.
- DON’T exclude families and community.
Creating a Safe Atmosphere
When Ide’s principal turned her down, she refused to give up on the idea of a world religions class, having benefited from one herself in high school. “There was great value at a young age in learning to understand and having compassion and empathy for people who believe differently than me and for people that maybe have very different ideas than me,” says Ide. “I think that really shaped who I was.”
Eventually, a new principal supported her efforts. Ide has now been teaching her world religions elective for five years. She knows any study of religion in schools can create doubts and concerns, but she’s never had a parent complain about her class. She attributes this success in large part to the care she takes to create a safe learning environment—for both students and their families.
Ide says it’s essential to reach out to the community, especially interfaith organizations that may be able to recommend resources or guest speakers. Once Ide has community and family buy-in, she makes a point of beginning her class with a unit about the establishment clause and other relevant legislation and court rulings.
Samantha Reynolds, who teaches a world religions class in Fairfax County, Va., uses a similar strategy to assure students that the class will be fully objective. “In the beginning of the year, we set the tone pretty explicitly that this is a safe place. This is in no way religious indoctrination. This is a place of academic research and study of religion,” she says.
Only 36 percent of survey respondents knew that public school teachers may teach comparative religion courses.
- Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2010 survey
The research and study Reynolds mentions isn’t just for students. Many educators may be as unfamiliar with world religions as the kids they’ll be teaching—but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for someone considering teaching a comparative or world religions class. There are resources out there. “My best advice would be: You can teach this course,” says Reynolds. “And not only can you, you should.”
Reynolds recommends teachers read as many textbooks and primary sources as they can to get multiple perspectives. “You can never have too many sources,” she says. “It’s hard because as a teacher, you don’t want to say ‘I don’t know.’” But there are other answers. “You can say, ‘I’m going to look into that answer’ or ‘I need to research that more, so I can give you an accurate answer.’ It’s OK to say that. You won’t seem unprofessional. You’ll seem like a human.”
In the end, the effort will pay off, say both Reynolds and Ide. Yes, students learn facts about a variety of religions, but they also learn the value of understanding and embracing people’s differences. Ide says one of her students put it best when he said, “I never really had the opportunity to know about many other religions. Comparative world religions cleared up many misconceptions.”
It’s that kind of understanding that can spread throughout a student’s life, says Ide. Last year, after her students had begun practicing for their winter choir concert, she received a visit from the choir teacher. Her students had requested he add songs reflecting diverse religions to the lineup.
“They’re advocating,” says Ide. “They’re taking the knowledge they’ve been given and trying to be fair. … Knowledge can be powerful that way.”
World religions courses should create dialogue. Usually this happens in classrooms—or even better throughout an entire school. But what if students around the world could talk with each other directly about the role religion plays in their lives?
That thought is what spurred the creation of Face to Faith, a program that puts students of various religious and nonreligious backgrounds into direct dialogue via video conference. Charles C. Haynes, of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, says this direct contact sold him on the project. “It’s one thing to talk about Hinduism or Islam … but it’s quite another thing to have a student meet another student who is a practicing Hindu or Muslim, or who is an atheist, and talk about why they believe what they believe.”
The program includes flexible lesson modules that can be integrated into an existing class or combined to create an entire course. An online community provides support and tips for implementation.