Tim Hall, Ph.D.
In education, there is a fear of bringing religion into the classroom. This fear founded on a misunderstanding of the application of the First Amendment has a huge potential negative impact on students growing up in the globalized twenty-first century. But why is there a misunderstanding? And why should we care?
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Many in public education have interpreted the First Amendment to mean that religion should not be taught in the classroom. But this is not the case at all. As Justice Clark stated in the majority opinion in landmark First Amendment case, Abington Township School District v. Schempp (1963), an education “is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historical qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
Then, students need to learn about religion in the classroom. Knowledge of other faith traditions helps to eliminate prejudice, hate, and intolerance. Students who have a better understanding of religion and its importance to societies will be preparing to thrive in a global community. Therefore, teachers shouldn’t run from the topic of religion; instead, they should embrace it. The better students understand the importance of religion to culture, the better equipped they will be to face and form our globalized future.
But we can go deeper into the reasons that religion should be incorporated into the classrooms in America. These deeper arguments can be used separately or jointly to provide a solid case for teaching about religion in the schools with the first three being advanced by Warren Nord and Charles Haynes in the text Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum published at the end of the millennium.
- Civic Argument: Schools must have a common ground. We need to learn to listen to and respect each other on deeply held understandings. So curricula should reflect inclusivity—teaching about religious and secular ways of thinking.
- Constitutional Argument: Schools should remain neutral, meaning religiously neutral, neutral among religions, and neutral between religion and nonreligion. Schools should not ignore religious perspectives of thinking and living and only teach secular views of thinking and living, which can be religiously contested.
- Liberal Education Argument: Schools based on a liberal arts model of education require that students should be liberally educated. So they must understand a good deal of the content and context of religions. Liberal education is a long educational dialogue in which students listen to, reflect on, and think critically about a variety of perspectives tackling the most critical questions of life. Students should be learning about and from religions to gain a deeper awareness, reflectivity, and understanding of themselves and others. (1)
- Global Competence: Knowledge of religions is essential as we globalize in the twenty-first century. Our world is only getting smaller, and students will have more contact with other faith traditions. An understanding of religions will allow students to interact with others successfully. In more concrete terms using the Four Domains of Global Competence developed by the Asia Society, an understanding of religions provides students an opportunity to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and others’ perspectives, and communicate their idea effectively with diverse audiences.
Regardless, whenever reasons for religion in schools are offered, it is common to hear a chorus of “Yes, but…” from anxious teachers and administrators. Yet, if we are working toward a world with better understanding, our students must conceive the dimensions of religion in it.
(1) Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1998).