Rules Are for Schmucks: Should Religion Be Taught in School?

From California to Tennessee to Australia to Massachusetts, the allegedly “neutral” teaching of religion in public schools is causing more and more problems. It’s time to get rid of it.

Shortly before the Islamic State attack on Paris, a California teacher had her seventh-grade class sing a little ditty to the melody of “This Is My Fight Song” with lyrics she had made up, including:

Like a sandstorm in the desert, sending camels into motion,
like how a single faith can make a heart open,
they might only have one god,
but they can make an explosion…

Their power’s turned on
Starting right now they’ll be strong
They’ll play their fight song

Some parents were upset because it promotes the idea that Islam “can make a heart open.” Others were upset because they thought the reference to “explosion” promoted Islamophobia. The school board tried to cover all the bases with a generic apology to anyone who may have been offended.

In Tennessee, the school board defused a pending lawsuit by agreeing to review state standards for the teaching of religion in middle schools, two years ahead of the normal review schedule. The accelerated review is sparked by parental concerns over the emphasis on Islam in at least some classes, including having seventh-graders rote-learn messages such as “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.” A bill has been offered in the state legislature calling for a review of the presentation of religion in middle school to assure that “the reference does not amount to teaching any form of religious doctrine to the students,” on the grounds that younger children “are not able to discern a lot of times whether it’s indoctrination or whether they’re learning about what a religion teaches.” Naturally, this proposal that neutrally covers all religions, and simply asks for a review to prevent indoctrination, was immediately condemned as Islamophobic.

In the Australian state of Victoria, after long debate, religious instruction will be scrapped from the curriculum of public schools starting next year and replaced with education about building respectful relationships. This has infuriated segments of Australia’s God industry, which relies on school indoctrination to build its future customer base.

There are those who argue, as Lind K. Wertheimer does in her new book Faith Ed, that public school children—even those as young as age seven—should be taught about religion simply because it is a part of the world we live in. She admits there are huge problems with the way religion is actually taught in public schools, as demonstrated by the sixth-graders in Wellesley, Massachusetts, who were videotaped on their knees, praying to Allah, during a field trip to a mosque. And she complains vigorously about the Christian indoctrination she endured as the only Jewish student in her own public school class in Ohio. But she just blithely assumes that the problems will vanish once all the teachers are taught to do things right.

The main problem with this Pollyannaish view is that teachers are human and will always screw it up. They all come into class with their own beliefs and cannot help but convey those beliefs to their students. I’m not just talking about fundamentalist Christians, or the kind of teachers who Christian fundamentalists might condemn as America-hating liberal Islam-lovers (like the songwriter in California). Even nonbelievers bring their own agenda to the classroom—there was yet another school board apology in Texas last month for a teacher who forced her sixth-grade students to write an argument that “God is not real.”

I have an extremely exalted view of my own abilities to do just about anything, at least anything not requiring athletic or artistic talent. But I don’t think I could teach children about religious belief neutrally. I couldn’t teach about the Hebrew bible without mentioning that Moses couldn’t possibly have written the Torah, especially the part describing his own death—and I would have a hard time finding anything positive to say about the genocide in the book of Joshua or about circumcision. I couldn’t teach about the early days of Christianity without mentioning all the self-contradictions in the New Testament or that the authors of nearly all of it never actually met the guy they were writing about. I couldn’t teach about the later history of Christianity without describing its special affinity for slavery, torture, apartheid, and the suppression of science. I couldn’t teach about Hinduism without devoting at least half of my lesson time to explaining the caste system, and I couldn’t teach about Islam without mentioning the latest cases of death penalties for blasphemy or apostasy. My little sixth-graders would emerge with a view of religion not at all what the proponents of religious education have in mind, and I wouldn’t last long in the job. But a class that doesn’t teach all those things would be terribly sugarcoated, would it not?

The governor of Tennessee complains about the legislation proposed there that “I don’t know how you talk about the founding of America, and what became of the United States, without talking about religious doctrine.” It seems to me it would be the easiest thing in the world to teach about the founding of America without force-feeding students the Five Pillars of Islam, the Ten Commandments, or the 613 religious rules of the Hebrew bible. Any decent teacher could go on at length about the importance of allowing each person freedom of his or her own belief without dwelling on what those beliefs might be.

In an Atlantic interview, Wertheimer has glowing praise for a “gold standard” religious education program developed in Modesto, California, which teaches all about “Sikhism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.” Notice any omissions from that list? Where’s the equal time for atheism, or agnosticism, or the burgeoning “spiritual but not religious” movement? I guarantee you there’s a heck of a lot more nonbelievers in Modesto than there are Sikhs. But even if nonbelief were given equal time (which will never happen), I don’t think the problem of teacher bias can be solved. Would you want the teacher who called atheists “fools” teaching the segment on atheism?

Students even at the youngest ages do need to learn to think about moral and ethical issues. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are not enough. But there are plenty of ways to do that—easy ways—that have nothing to do with the selling of the supernatural. In researching this article, I ran across a set of educational materials called Character Counts that seems to do a good job of this, and with healthy competition, there could be even more. That’s what should be in our public schools—let the God industry recruit new customers on its own nickel, not on mine.