How to teach religion in public schools

March 9, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

It’s a matter of “how” rather than “whether” to teach religion in public schools, according to the panel over at “On Faith.”  The question put to the panel was whether religion should be taught in public schools.  There was one naysayer (a retired episcopal priest), who argues that trying to teach religion objectively is too prone to abuses. 

Among those who said “yes” was Daniel Dennett.  He quoted from his recent book, Breaking the Spell.  Here’s an excerpt:

“Let’s get more education about religion into our schools, not less. We should teach our children creeds and customs, prohibitions and rituals, the texts and music, and when we cover the history of religion, we should include both the positive–the role of the churches in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, the flourishing of science and the arts in early Islam, and the role of the Black Muslims in bringing hope, honor and self-respect to the otherwise shattered lives of many inmates in our prisons, for instance–and the negative–the Inquisition, anti-Semitism over the ages, the role of the Catholic Church in spreading AIDS in Africa through its opposition to condoms.

“No religion should be favored, and none ignored. And as we discover more and more about the biological and psychological bases of religious practices and attitudes, these discoveries should be added to the curriculum, the same way we update our education about science, health, and current events. This should all be part of the mandated curriculum for both public schools and for home-schooling.

“Here’s a proposal, then: As long as parents don’t teach their children anything that is likely to close their minds — through fear or hatred or by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them an education, for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world) then they may teach their children whatever religious doctrines they like.

Elaine Pagels concurs:

Yes, emphatically! We should teach comparative religion in public middle schools, high schools, colleges and universities.

At that time, many people believed (as my biologist father did) that religion would wither away as science, psychology, and humanism took its place. Now we need the resources of all of these to help us understand the phenomenon of religion, as well as neurology and sociology . . . [I]f we don’t understand more about it than we do, we are not going to understand the 21st century.

Compare most of the respnonses to the response of Chuck Colson, who wants to teach religion as an “us versus them” mentality.

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Category: Education, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ben says:

    I agree. School is where we should be exposed to alternative ways of thinking. We learn about culture and religion in classes like sociology and philosophy and even classes devoted entirely to one religion or race. (Jewish Studies for example). I took a class called “latin american history”, another called, “asian american studies”. I was just hoping for an easy “A” but ended up learning to appreciate these cultures more than I would have if I had not. Now I am able to better comprehend the complexity in southeast asia, india, china, japan, korea all vastly different. In fact, the term “asian” deserves at least a semester’s worth of study simply to define. Ended up getting a “C” in Latin american history. But managed a “B” in asian studies, thanks to my willingness to learn about things which at first seemed trivial, such as the “dotbusters”.

    Thankfully, I don’t see any of these bright minds indicating that we should teach religion in science class.

  2. Sasha Kanarski says:

    Unfortunately, my school teaches just one religion and seems to ignore the theory of evolution and other religions. Then again, it would be expected from a Christian school. What's sad is, by not teaching various religions and science alternatives, students only get a closed-minded view which has followed them since their parents laid it on them– and kept pressing. Sometimes I try and wonder how their minds would have been different had their parents raised them to a variety of choices, rather than their already made decision: Christianity. How many more will be held from rational thinking?

  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    I'd expect the teaching of Christianity in American schools to be hampered in much the same way as the teaching of science is. Just present a list of answers, instead of teaching the process that leads to them.

    The fundamentalists that I know are sure that the Bible (usually KJV, in particular) emerged fully formed as divine inspiration, full of original, absolute and incontrovertible Truth.

    Their education carefully avoided mention (much less examination) of Osirus, Zoroaster (a.k.a: Zardushi, Zarathustra, etc), Gilgamesh, and other historically significant precursors. Some of their stories are told in the New Testament, with the serial numbers filed off and their names all changed to "Jesus".

    Science, as taught in many schools, is just a list of conclusions (discoveries) invented by esteemed priests scientists. In order to pass state-mandated tests, students must be able to regurgitate these answers, but there is no need to show any comprehension of what the answers imply, or how they were found.

    Schools still teach the 4 basic taste areas on the tongue (an idea as accurate as Earth, Air, Fire, and Water as the 4 chemical elements), that Columbus uniquely thought the world was round, that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, and other pieces of long-discredited folklore in the name of science.

    Given the sad state of teaching essentially rational science (especially at the early grades), I hold no hope that religion can be taught in a rational manner in public schools. Unless it is taught as a sort of philosophy course for which there is no state requirement, by a teacher going out on a limb.

    In my 8th grade religion class, we covered Animism, Mayan, Greco-Roman and Nordic pantheisms, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam. Judaism and Christianity were glossed over by naming the books of the Bible and some of the major players (Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and the apostles). I'd always assumed that the school didn't want to offend the tiny but vocal Christian groups that would soon fashion themselves as the Moral Majority.

    I'd call that a success, even though the course was elective and therefore only attended by students from relatively open-minded households.

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