How to Teach about Religion in an Age of Intolerance

Posted On 9 Aug 2021 by religionmatters

A review of Linda K Wertheimer’s Faith Ed. Teaching about Religion in an Age of Tolerance

Dr. Tim Hall

 

“I want a society where children of all faiths can grow up being proud of who they are and not feel threatened or harassed because of their religious identity.”

– Hassan Shibly, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (p. 95)

How can an educator successfully teach for a deep understanding of religious traditions in the classroom or school during divisive times? This vital question for an ever-increasing global and diverse America is the subject of Faith Ed. Teaching about religion in an Age of Intolerance written by noted journalist and award-winning education writer Linda K. Wertheimer. Typically, as an educator begins to tackle this challenge in the classroom, school, or district, they would turn to several foundational texts and documents, including:

Although these texts provide rigorous guidelines and frameworks to teach about religion, they do not humanize the project, highlighting the more profound complexities of teaching religious literacy, including pitfalls. This is the reason that I highly recommend Linda Wertheimer’s book. In this fascinating and readable text, Linda tackles the critical questions that every teacher or administrator should understand as they seek to bring religious literacy into the classroom, school, or district. Linda highlights these questions with case studies of recent controversies and hours of in-depth interviews representing the diverse perspectives involved.

In “Chapter One: Burkagate,” the author tackles the question of teaching about religion through experiential learning by thoroughly detailing the Burkagate controversy of 2014. Building on the first, the next chapter, entitled “Did a Field Trip Put Student’s in the Lion’s Den?” examines the controversy surrounding a field trip to an Islamic mosque at Wellesley Middle School in 2010, asking whether students should take field trips to houses of worship. In “Chapter 3: Whose Truth Should They Hear?” Linda details the controversy surrounding the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) guest speaker who visited Steinbrenner High School in 2014, addressing whether teachers or schools should allow guest speakers to speak for religious traditions. Following this chapter, the author describes the debate in late 2013 surrounding the Minneha Core Knowledge Elementary School in Wichita, Kansas. This dispute focused on the grade level appropriateness of learning about religious traditions, whether in elementary, middle, or high school. In Chapter 5, Linda provides perspectives from her own childhood experience of religious instruction in the public schools in Ohio. During the 1970s, the author, who is Jewish, was pulled from the classroom where Christian religious instruction classes were being provided during the school day. Not only was this practice unconstitutional (McCollum v Board of Education), it is very exclusionary and deeply hurtful. Linda’s perspective personalizes and highlights the importance of religious literacy in preventing bullying, discrimination, and exclusion. 

In the final two chapters, the reader gets to witness “religion done right,” which details a successful religious literacy class in Modesto, California. Linda concludes the text by describing the positive impact of religious literacy on the lives of various students from the Modesto program while also preparing educators for the “long game” of progress and setbacks before seeing any results from a sustained project of this type.

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Throughout the text, the author is meticulous in providing the many reactions and perspectives of students, teachers, administrators, and parents to the different approaches used in teaching religious literacy. These details give an essential human understanding of the challenge of teaching about religion in public schools. It is this perspective that makes the text so valuable. The other texts and documents on the subject provide frameworks and guidelines to teach religious literacy, while Linda gives us the human perspective of this educational endeavor. The questions asked and responses from the school communities involved in these case studies are invaluable as teachers and/or administrators consider implementing a more rigorous approach to religious literacy in the classroom or school. I highly recommend it!