Teaching Religion in Public School

How can our public schools teach about religion? Stephen Prothero has just written a book (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t) examining our failure at educating people in religion and proposing some ways we can correct the deficiency. A brief summary of his case appears in today’s Dallas Morning News. Time Magazine has also covered the issue recently in David Van Biema’s, “The Case for Teaching the Bible.”

I’ve had to think about this issue because of my participation in a group faced with the possibility of developing standards for the teaching of religion. Here are some of my thoughts on the issue:

1. Increased knowledge and understanding is a good thing. Religion will intrude into the curriculum whether people like it or not. Not only has it been a major feature of human life in the past, but it remains so today. If it will be in the curriculum, it is better that it be there in the most accurate way possible. When you think of seeking accuracy in a given subject, one is inclined to look for experts. From one point of view, the scholars that inhabit the religion departments of the most highly respected universities would necessarily be the experts. From another point of view, however, those who inhabit a given religion, whether they have academic qualifications or not, would be the experts.

2. Unlike other areas of the curriculum, many students (and parents) perceive religion not merely as something “out there,” something to be dealt with objectively, but as something in which the individual (as well as the family and community) ought to be involved. As scholars, we have been trained to treat religion objectively – we can set our subjective involvement to the side if need be. A fair percentage of the US population would find this extremely difficult. While thinking of English, History, Math and Science objectively – as something “out there” – is common, practitioners of religion are used to thinking of religion foremost as something “in here” in addition to being “out there.” So while teachers work to create subjective involvement with areas of study students treat objectively, when it comes to religion we will be asking them to do the opposite. We all know religion is contested in more ways and by more people than any other academic subject. Since it’s difficult to teach it well and have it well received, it’s often easier to just avoid it.

3. But perhaps I’m wrong and teaching students to treat religion objectively will be much easier than I imagine. But if the majority of students can treat religion objectively during study hours, will those who are practitioners be able to hold on to their subjective involvement? A few might be uninfluenced. More will find their subjective involvement changed. Some will even find their subjective involvement ebbing away. In this final instance, the imposition of the religious studies model can be a force for secularization. While attitudes toward the desirability and extent of secularization vary, I think there is a significant segment of the population that would view an increase in secularization as a bad thing.

4. Standardization is frequently an act of power from above. While we live in a society that profits from standardization (it’s convenient that gas stations in all parts of the country sell a product my car can burn), students, schools and communities are not standardized. It would require excessive exercise of state power to standardize on these levels. While scholars – or practitioners – may be qualified to identify standards for the study of religion, we are doing so in a field that is prone to widely divergent evaluation with regard to appropriateness by communities and parents.

Religion often goes along with truth claims. While different religions, different communities, and different practitioners, envision and enact truth claims in different ways, those truth claims cannot be simply set aside as irrelevant. Stanley Fish has a good discussion of the inevitable truth dimension when it comes to religion (you might also be interested in Albert Mohler’s interview with Fish).

I’m afraid this is problem because we’ve decided that schools should be a arm of state power, with a uniform curriculum for a (supposedly) uniform student population. If true diversity were allowed in our communities schools, then our difficulty here would be much lessened. But I don’t see this changing any time soon. What else can we do?

Stop and think about Prothero’s claim for a moment.  He observes that “only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the four Gospels.” If national religious statistics are correct, more than 1 in 3 US citizens identify themselves as Christians. While we may be justified in complaining about the educational establishment for its failure to produce students knowledgeable about religion, the bigger difficulty – dare I use the word scandal? – that the church has failed to teach anything much more than “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so?” Church teachers, whether we consider Sunday school teachers, pastors, or parents, don’t seem to expect their students to learn anything.  We repeat the same thing over and over again. And few learn anything.

We lack the power to enforce our view of the proper teaching of religion on the public schools – whether we be speaking as Christians or religion scholars.  And that’s ok. We do have the power, however, to raise our sights and our expectations in our churches.

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One Response to Teaching Religion in Public School

  1. joan says:

    maybe the Lord can work through the schools,too. The Word of God
    is … (living, at least. I know there are other wonderful things we can say about the Word of God. He can use it wherever we stumble upon it.)

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