Why Religious Education Is Needed in Public Schools

On June 12 the National Council for the Social Studies became the first national education organization in the United States to put into its curriculum framework a set of guidelines for teaching about religion. This means the NCSS now “recognizes religious studies as an essential part of the social studies curriculum,” and the organization is seeking to have public schools across the country offer material on the subject of religion to students in kindergarten through high school.

The NCSS press release states that the new set of guidelines “encourages student awareness of religions, but not acceptance of a particular religion; studying about religion, but not practicing religion; exposing students to a diversity of religious views, but not imposing any particular view; and educating students about all religions, but not promoting or denigrating religion.” In other words, this is about academic inquiry rather than devotional study—an approach long recognized as constitutional.

But it’s also been recognized as problematic.

This is because, until recently, the subject of world religions lacked relevancy for public school students in the United States. Hence, when material on the subject was provided it tended to be taught as an elective, and those doing the teaching tended to inject relevancy through “comparative religion,” which in practice amounted to comparing Christianity to all other (read: inferior) faiths. Because of this, only the best-trained world religions specialists could be trusted to do the subject justice. And they were few and far between.

But times have changed. Jack Fitzmier, executive director of the American Academy of Religion, notes that “The rise in religious misunderstanding accompanying global migration, world conflicts, and religious identity politics signifies the need for a renewed focus on the academic study of religion.” Put another way, the United States has a more religiously diverse immigrant and homegrown population than ever before, has been engaged in warfare against religiously motivated non-Christian enemies, and has for decades been divided domestically by a politicized form of conservative Christianity. As a result, the subject of religion can no longer be ignored by today’s public school students or teachers. Religious illiteracy has ceased to be an option.

This change comes at a time of increased diversity in student body makeup and increased diversity in the culture at large, resulting in increased sensitivity among teachers. So today’s educators would seem better disposed to handle in a more balanced way the subject of religious diversity.

To their credit, secularists have been among those ahead of the curve on this. In a 2010 survey, the Pew Research Center found that “atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons” were “among the highest-scoring groups on… religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.” However, a distinction wasn’t made between atheists and agnostics who had been reared in a traditional religion versus those who had been reared in nontheistic households. My own experience at Camp Quest, working with children brought up secular, was that these children often had little knowledge or understanding about religion. This necessitated my telling “scary Bible stories” around the campfire and also stories from other traditions, such as encounters by the Hindu hero Rama with the evil rakshasas. My aim was to increase religious literacy. In its own efforts to remedy this situation, The Humanist Institute includes the study of world religions in its courses in humanism.

And now Richard Dawkins, aware of the increase in secular households in the United Kingdom, has expressed his own concern. Speaking June 10 at the Cheltenham Science Festival in England, responding to a question about whether public school religious studies should be discontinued, he said, “I think that it is an important part of our culture to know about the Bible.” He noted that “so much of English literature has allusions to the Bible” and added, “So much of European history is dominated by disputes against rival religions,” and therefore “you can’t understand history unless you know about the history of the Christian religion and the Crusades and so on.”

In the past, Dawkins has made reference to common English metaphors, like “through a glass darkly,” that would simply make no sense to one unfamiliar with the Bible, particularly the King James Version. It’s easy to think of others: making someone “a scapegoat,” receiving “the kiss of death,” having an experience “on the road to Damascus,” engaging in a “David and Goliath” struggle, seeing “the handwriting on the wall,” being like “Daniel in the lion’s den,” or foreseeing “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.” Writers and public speakers use such expressions and references frequently.

Therefore, so long as religion remains a force in societies around the world, and because literature and history reflect religion’s extensive influence, it only makes sense that students in American public schools understand world religions and even get to know the Bible and other sacred texts as literature to analyze.