Teaching Our Students About Religion

During our panel discussion in class this week, the question of a teacher’s responsibilities regarding the inclusion of religion education as a part of the curriculum, in the sense that it is an important topic to promote global citizenship. A subject of controversy, the idea of promoting either teaching values or teaching about religions in school brings up the “separation of church and state” argument. Although I am in support of this concept as a general rule, I think that the lengths we have gone to in order to keep religion out of our public schools are extreme. That’s not to say that one religion, even if it is the most predominant in our society, should be espoused, but neither should one belief. As put by McConnell (1995), “it is no more neutral to favor the secular over the religious than it is to favor the religious over the secular.” As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, the necessity for encouraging and teaching acceptance of all grows stronger. Pretending that religion isn’t a part of our world does no favors to those who will one day have to take their own place, and only encourages ignorance and a lack of acceptance that is needed. Knowing this, my belief is that a teacher’s responsibility is not to ensure that all thought or act of religion be removed from schools, but rather to ensure that students understand why it is that some people may act the way they do. On a smaller scale, helping students understand each other can reduce bullying and increase awareness of others’ feelings. On a larger scale, it helps students to see what is going on in the world, and what they can do to help. As an example, I was in 6th grade when the twin towers were hit by terrorists. Growing up in a predominantly white, Lutheran community, I’d never really heard of (or never paid attention to) this strange religion called Islam. All I knew was that Muslims hated Americans, and they thought we were bad people because we didn’t believe what they did. It was a narrow, uneducated belief, shared by many of my friends and peers, and one that could have been avoided had we been taught that Christianity wasn’t the only belief people had (this was something I knew vaguely, but did not quite grasp). The US was swept by Islamophobia after 9/11, and still is, causing mistrust, systemic racism, and acts of violence that are completely misplaced. This is why teachers need to be advocates for well-balanced, neutral education that lets students know that while there are different religions and cultures, and these can motivate us to certain behaviors, it doesn’t mean they are wrong. It is their responsibility to ensure that their own beliefs aren’t being force-fed to students, and that other religions and cultures are represented in their classroom as normal, routine examples. When I taught preschool, we had a “diversity” unit for helping students put words to the different cultures they saw, but diversity was something we taught year-round. Our art was inspired by different cultures, we held discussions about how (or what!) other people might eat during mealtimes, and our materials depicted people from all around the world. I think the same thing should be happening in elementary and secondary schools. In math, students learn that much of it came from Greece, but the Greeks were only a part of the history of mathematics. Medieval Europeans believed that math could explain the created order of nature, and that God had ordered all things by weight, measure, and number. Other cultures and religion helped shape what we know today, and our students should understand this in order to help them find their place in the world as responsible, global citizens.

McConnell, M. (1995). Testimony of Michael W. McConnell. Evans, D. (2005). Taking sides: Clashing views on controversial issues in teaching and educational practice. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill/Dushkind.