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The Texas Board of Education, the nation’s second largest purchaser of public school textbooks, is revising its K-12 social studies curriculum and deciding how to characterize religion’s influence on American history. Three consultants have recommended emphasizing the roles of the Bible, Christianity and civic virtue of religion. As America’s children go back to school, how would you advise the Texas board? How should religion be taught in public schools?
Because of the contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, there has been a general fear and avoidance of addressing the issue of religion in most public schools in the country. While there are some positive aspects to this approach, there are many negative ones as well. One of the major difficulties is that it has resulted in an overall lack of understanding of what religion is, does, and means to people all over the world, including here in the U.S. This general ignorance about religion leads to distrust of those who belong to a different religion or to no religion at all, and this distrust can lead to fear, hatred, and even violence. After all, most of those who kill in the name of religion do so because they think that people who are of a different religion, or even different denomination, are evil.
Although the U.S. was founded on certain Christian principles and values, it is now home to every major religious tradition as well as several thousand denominations of Christianity. If we want to be unified as a country, we need to understand each other more than we do. If we want to live in a world with less fear and hatred, we need to get to know each other better, since fear is often the consequence of ignorance. If we want to try to solve the problems of the world, we need to have a deeper knowledge of each other’s beliefs and values, where they intersect with our own, and where we can find common ground. Having a broader awareness of religion and the role it plays in lives of Americans and people all over the world is an important part of this process. Religion is one of the greatest and also worst products of human creation. While it has been used to justify and promote hatred, as in the case of Osama bin Laden and other religious terrorists, it has also inspired and given support to such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama. Students should have the opportunity to understand this, and learn the positive values that these latter individuals have used to help make the world a better place.
Therefore, I strongly support the teaching about religion in all public schools, but it must be clear that this is not the teaching “of” religion but the teaching “about” religion. It is not theological or sectarian indoctrination but academic education, similar in some respects to the way one teaches about societies, cultures, political systems, etc. I have been teaching comparative religion at the University of Hawai’i for 20 years. In our department, my colleagues and I teach about the origins and developments of the major religious traditions, about the various value systems, beliefs, and practices that exist, and how religions interpret the world and set guidelines for their adherents. We are not acting as preachers, we are doing our duty as teachers. There is a big difference.
Our students usually fill out anonymous course evaluations at the end of every semester and offer comments on our courses. One comment that is fairly common is that learning about others’ beliefs and practices makes them less “scary” in the eyes of the students. This is a very important lesson. To accomplish this, however, the curriculum needs to be broad. It should not be confined to Christianity, to the Bible, or to the Abrahamic religions but should include the religious history, beliefs, and practices of native Americans as well as the major non-Christian religious traditions. Additionally, teachers who undertake this need to have some training in comparative religion, so that their classes are not simply Bible study sessions.
California has already included teaching about religion in some of its grades, and the Texas Board of Education has an opportunity to do so as well. No doubt, there will be those ideologues, both religious and atheist, who will see teaching about religion as a threat to their narrow beliefs and views of the world. The school board needs to look beyond these fears and embrace the chance to broaden their students’ perspective of the world, and its myriad belief systems. When addressing the important and pivotal issue of religions and how they effect our lives, both directly and indirectly, ignorance is NOT bliss.