I listened in the other day on a conversation among students sparked by a news report on a proposed Alabama bill that would allow churches to teach religion classes to public school students for credit. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/alabama-bill-religion-class_n_1294976.html]. The teaching would take place off campus, would require parental and local school board approval, and the parents and churches would have to cover any cost incurred, including transportation. The conversation revolved mainly around the question of what should be taught in the public schools about religion, if anything at all. Though I have strong ideas on this topic, I remained an eaves dropper on this conversation, both to avoid professorial intrusion into the situation, and also because I have an outlet for my thoughts in this blog spot. So here goes…
Let me begin by saying that this question is more than merely academic or theoretical for me. It engages me directly, as a father of a public school child, as a citizen taxpayer, an educator, and as a religiously affiliating person. Early in my career, I taught World Religions in a secular (though private) school and history/social studies in public schools. Raised a Christian (Mennonite), I am the male partner in an interfaith marriage, a gentile father in a modern Jewish family. We are members of a small Reform congregation that is situated within an overwhelmingly Christian Midwestern town. My daughter has always been the only Jewish girl in her public school classes through the years, and one of only a few other-than-Christian students in her school.
While for religious minorities it is often most expedient to support a blanket “no religion” policy for the public school curriculum, I don’t agree. Teaching about religion should not be ignored because, as contributions to The Denial File have repeatedly underlined, religion is one of the most pervasive elements of individual and communal human life. An educated human mind inevitably seeks answers to deep questions of purpose and meaning in life, and most people naturally turn to the teachings and practices of religion in response to those questions.
Starting at the earliest levels, we can help students recognize why people take their religious beliefs so seriously. At the same time, with increasing sophistication across the curriculum, we can help students recognize that by its very nature, religious beliefs and practices are always tentative and partial. Individuals and communities of people will naturally find some types of beliefs and practices to be more satisfying for themselves than others. It is one of our strengths as a democratic people that we do not always line up together in complete agreement, but that we strive to keep the conversation vibrant and alive.
Specific content of teaching on religion in the public schools will vary, depending on the grade level. Likewise, there is a good case to be made for infusing such learning throughout the curriculum, as it naturally arises, rather than offering specific courses. But two points should guide us throughout: 1) teaching about religion should not be ignored, and 2) teaching about religion must underscore the value of religious pluralism.
Far from being a necessary threat to strong religious faith, recognition of this fundamental pluralism (including strong doubt, agnosticism and atheism) yields the most valuable opportunity we have to learn from each other, and to develop and mature in our encounter with life’s deepest questions. All religious faiths (and most secular social philosophies) place some form of the Golden Rule (mutuality in respect and concern) at the heart of their teachings. If we have the courage to infuse this basic teaching throughout the public school curriculum, not only our children but our larger democratic social institutions will greatly benefit.