THE TABLE

A setting to debate the issues of the day.

Should we teach religion in public schools? And if so, how?

We Must Teach about Religion in High Schools

By | January 7, 2014

In September, Hendersonville High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee, made national news when it suspended field trips to religious sites as part of an elective class in world studies. The elective, which has been taught at Hendersonville for a decade, includes a unit on world religion covering five traditions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the past, students have visited a mosque, a Hindu temple, and a synagogue without incident.

This year, parent Mike Conner objected to his stepdaughter visiting the mosque, claiming that, “The teacher was pushing Islamic tolerance.” The complaint started a chain of events that culminated in the school cancelling the traditional field trips indefinitely. Similar controversies have arisen in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Britain where schools have incorporated field trips to mosques into their social studies curricula. At Hendersonville the objection was framed as one of equality among religious traditions. The school capitulated to Conner’s argument that if the school could not afford five field trips, it should not take any. This is a frustrating case that demonstrates ongoing confusion about the nature and purpose of public education as well as jurisprudence about religion in pubic schools––all at a time when young Americans need religious literacy more than ever.

Despite being such a religiously diverse nation, America has levels of religious literacy that are abysmal. In a 2010 survey, the Pew Forum asked more than 3,000 Americans some simple questions about the world’s religions. Most respondents could answer only half of them correctly. In a 2005 study conducted for the Bible Literacy Project, only 10 percent of American teenagers could even name the five world religions covered in the Hendersonville world religions unit. This does not bode well. Religious literacy is necessary to the health of a democratic, pluralistic society. Religion is not a discrete and ahistorical phenomenon; instead, it is embedded in the very fabric of human history and culture. 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. One Hendersonville alumnus remarked that the world studies class “was really the one and only class that allowed for such an open dialogue of faith and religion.” Unfortunately, this sort of agency is exactly what some parents object to.

When I worked as a public school teacher, I found that religion made administrators extremely nervous. I continually encountered colleagues who believed that the Constitution requires public schools to be “religion-free zones.” This notion is not only inaccurate; it undermines the very educational standards that public schools are charged with teaching. In the landmark case Abington v. Schempp (1963), which banned devotional reading of the Bible in public schools as unconstitutional, justice Thomas Clark remarked, “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 advancement of civilization.” This distinction between the state-sponsored practice of a religion and teaching about religion has been reiterated in subsequent decisions (Stone v. Graham, 1980; Edwards v. Aquillard, 1987). Furthermore, the world history standards for the state of Tennessee mandate that students learn about major religions and their philosophies. They read, “Minimal understanding should include Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.” While the controversial course at Hendersonville was an elective, every student in the state is already supposed to be learning about these traditions.

Public schools have long been a battleground for religious and political movements. In 1859, a ten-year-old Catholic boy named Thomas Whall was beaten in Boston’s Eliot public school for refusing to recite the Protestant version of the Ten Commandments. This incident resulted in an uprising of Catholic schoolboys known as the “Eliot School Rebellion.” While teaching practices have changed, there is still a fear that public schools will undermine the ability of parents to pass on their values to their children. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), Chief Justice Warren Burger argued that parents have a “fundamental right” to guide the religious future of their children. However, a democratic society must also educate students to have moral agency and to think for themselves about big questions. Any right of parents to guide their children’s values cannot justify preventing students from receiving accurate and useful information about other religions. Furthermore, these fears are often unwarranted. Having taught world religion courses numerous times, I have never once seen a student abandon his or her current religion and adopt a new one as a result of the course. If anything, I have found that the study of world religion often deepens students’ appreciation for their own tradition because they are able to understand its uniqueness.

The argument that all religions must be given “equal time” is reminiscent of previous arguments by creationists that biology classes must “teach the debate” between biological evolution and “intelligent design.” These sorts of arguments are predicated on the assumption that courses are a marketplace in which students will select which religions and worldviews they will adopt. This is a fallacy. 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. As one Hendersonville student explained, “As a parent I wouldn’t be upset if my kid learned more about a different religion. I’d be upset if they learned the same thing over and over and over again.” For this reason, the teacher was completely justified in giving more time to Islam than Christianity. To fail to teach about Islam to a generation whose lives have been shaped by the war on terror, a decade of American military presence in the Islamic world, and the Arab Spring, is grossly irresponsible if not immoral. However, while the Hendersonville case is frustrating, it suggests that we have progressed from debating whether we should teach about religion in public schools to how we should do it. This, at least, gives me hope.

Joseph Laycock is a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School’s Program in Religion and Secondary Education.  He is also the author of “Religion in Schools” for The Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics.

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