An Essay on the Controversy on Religion and Public Education

Categories: Education

The mere mention of the terms religion and public education in the same sentence has both educators and parents gasping aloud (Ayers and Reid 14). The whole controversy of religion and public schools has a thick, impenetrable shell of arguments wrapped around it. People on both sides of the debate have been fighting for either position for a long time, and it seems as if no one is getting anywhere. One frequent question asked is, should world religion classes be added to the public school curriculum? According to Lewis M.

Hopfe, A knowledge of world religions is now essential to understanding people of various world cultures, their political systems, and the quest for world peace (xvii). World religion courses are necessary for students to get a complete educational experience.

The issue involving the study of world religions in public schools has been a challenge for both the church and state ever since the U.S. Constitution was written. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

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Clearly, it is a necessity for public schools to abide by the law of separation of church and state. Schools can do nothing to promote or favor any kind of religion; therefore, teaching a particular religion as truth is considered unconstitutional. There are a number of issues dealing with religion in schools, but teaching about world religions is a contemporary topic.

Only in the past ten years, textbook manufacturers have slowly integrated religious topics into history books.

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The information is not in depth by any means, but the major world religions are mentioned and briefly described. That is as far as we have made it with actually adding a world religion course to the curriculum, besides Modesto, which is the only school district in the nation to require all students to take a world religion course (Seward B1). This is actually a turnaround in the world of academia, because mentioning religious issues in text books is a big step in modern education. This turnaround started with the Equal Access Act of 1984 that allowed student-initiated religious clubs to meet after school; then in the late 1980s, California broke the mold by deciding to require more teaching about religion in history classes (Haynes 15a). The next issue, arising in the 1990s, entails the agreements made on how schools should deal with religious holidays, Bible references, and school prayer (15a). Today, a major debate about religion in schools is whether world religion classes should be included into public school curriculum. This topic has been a controversy for a number of years, yet people today are still debating whether teaching world religion classes in school is beneficial to the education program, or if it is just a catastrophe waiting to happen.

There are several arguments against allowing public schools to adopt world religions into their curriculum. One reason opponents neglect the teaching of world religions in public schools is that they feel teachers are not prepared for the subject. In an article by Joanne M. Marshall, an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at lowa State University, she states, Teachers continue to struggle to observe the line between private and public expression and between church and state (23). Many teachers are not entirely certain as to where exactly the church and state separate. Sometimes teachers might purposely, or accidentally, bring their own religious perspectives into the classroom. Moreover, the subjects they teach may reflect their viewpoints on religious issues. Many teachers lack knowledge about religions other than their own and this might create stereotypical beliefs about other religions (Subedi 228). This kind of ignorance leads to teachers having biased viewpoints towards religions; as a result, they might favor lecturing about one religion in class and then spend less time lecturing about another religion.

Elaine McCreery, in another article about preparing teachers to teach religious education, says that it became clear that many teachers in the study had ambivalent feelings about teaching religious education (265). In her study, she finds that one of the future teachers she questioned reports, I feel that I need to widen my knowledge as there are many religions I know little about (273). Many teachers prefer to gloss over or wholly ignore the thought of teaching religion in their curriculum (Ayers and Reid 14). The reason for this, Marshall says, is that teachers [are uncertain about how to teach sensitive religious topics and what they can say about their own religious beliefs (24).

Although these are strong arguments, they are not convincing. Considerable evidence shows that teachers are in fact preparing to teach religion in their curriculum. There is a teacher-training program known as the Teacher Training Agency, which requires all future educators to learn about various religions (McCreery 266). Teachers are planning their courses of study prior to class time so that they can accurately teach the subject. Also, reliable resources are available that teachers can use to assist them in planning their curriculum. One resource called A Teachers Guide to Religion in the Public School, which was published in 1999 by the First Amendment Center, explores the topic. Another resource used to aid educators is called the Core Knowledge Sequence, which provides teachers with a spirally aligned supplemental curriculum, that contains the specific topics to cover in certain units of study (16).

Teachers are also creating objectives for themselves to accomplish in order to prepare for teaching world religions. In an article about teaching the introductory course in religion, the author a teacher states that his objectives are to empower students willingly to utilize the knowledge offered through the course to participate constructively and sensitively in an increasingly diverse North American culture (Tweed 20). He goes on to say he wants his students to have respect for the importance of historical knowledge and cultural detail about religious person and cultures I prior to judgment (20). He adds that his goal is to bring students to recognize the diversity of religious paths Native American, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and African Traditionwithin both historical and contemporary U.S. cultural contexts (19). In McCreerys article that deals with preparing primary school teachers, the trainees were asked what they thought about teaching religious education in school. Many responded by saying, It should be taught without bias, objectively, that equal weight should be given to all beliefs (273). A study that was funded by the First Amendment Center five years ago in the Modesto school district to see the reactions of students taking world religion courses turned out to be a success (Seward B1). The newspaper article states, Since 2000, all ninth-graders have been required to take a nine-week World Religions course on Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (B1). Teachers in Modesto plan their classes by teaching the geography of a specific religion first, then the history, and finally a description. Teaching world religion classes is a solution to the big problem in studying history by eliminating bias. Subedi explains, Teaching about religious diversity helps to reduce bias in classrooms and creates opportunities for educators to better connect with students | (236). Although many teachers are not prepared to teach religion, sufficient evidence shows that some teachers are preparing to teach these classes. And those teachers that are not prepared should participate in training and educate themselves so they will be qualified to teach the courses also.

Another major argument against teaching world religions in school is that some people feel the course is not essential for students to prosper in education. Many parents and their children think that learning about other religions does nothing to benefit their education, because it is only a belief, and it does not have anything to do with academics. People say that young children are not even capable of understanding or retaining the information given about other religions. In an article written in 1908 from The Biblical World, the author states, Let one try to explain to a child of even thirteen years the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant ideas of ecclesiastical government, or the distinction between the divinity and the humanity of Christ, or the significance of baptism [], he or she will see that these things have little meaning or value for the child (246). Even students have objections to learning about world religions. In McCreerys study, she asked students what they thought about teaching religion in schools. One student reported, I am not sure about religion due to the friction it causes between people and the fact that people use religion as an excuse for war (271). Another student objects to the topic and simply says, I do not believe in religion (271).

Parents too feel that teaching religions in school is just superfluous to their childrens education. They think for their children to learn about religions in school is just a waste of time, because church is where they go to learn about religion. In a letter by Sherri Bergman, she says, would have little interest in taking my kids to church if they were already getting religion at school | And, if the schools do as poor a job with religion as they do with science, Im afraid my kids wouldnt even learn much (22). There is also evidence that reports the study of religion so far has failed to carry out its purposes consistently, especially when it comes to the nature, function, and value of religion (Green 474). It seems that many people feel that teaching religion classes in public schools is inadequate to the world of education.

Again, although these are strong arguments, they are not convincing. It is possible to argue that teaching about world religions is crucial to the development of students education. There is no possible way to teach history well without teaching about religion. Marshall quotes, Justice Clarks opinion | that ones education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization (27). The article goes on to report, These organizations are supported in this opinion by some 75% to 80% of Americans, who say they would not object to instruction about major world religions I (27). Yet, a study completed in 1996 showed that none of the history text books effectively present any important religious events of the past two centuries, the significant role that religion has played in American society, or the great religious energy and creativity of the United States (Boyer 198). This actually cheats students out of their education, because they never get an entire comprehension of our history. It would be interesting to repeat this study now, in 2010, to see if history texts have improved. For a student to obtain a true understanding of world history, or even U.S. history, integrating religious background into the curriculum would certainly be helpful.

Tolerance is one of the most important aspects of incorporating world religion classes into schools, especially since the horrible events at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Many Muslims and other people from the Middle East, who had nothing to do with the tragedy, have been targeted because of intolerance, prejudice, and in some cases, sheer ignorance (Ayers and Reid 14). If students were learning about these different cultures and their religions, they would learn to have more respect and tolerance towards other peoples beliefs. McCreery reports a teacher trainees comment; Its hugely important that people understand different religions because some people are so passionate and it helps them to understand where they are coming from (273). In Subedis research report, he includes a students journal entry, and it reads, I have become aware of other religions mostly through what happened in 9/11. I feel like I need to know more considering we are in war in Iraq and Afghanistan (232). There are other reports of students that urge the teaching of world religions. One student states, I think religion should be taught in schools because you get to know each other better, there wouldnt be many stereotypes about other religions, and you could understand yourself and others better (Ayers and Reid 15). Another student explains, Religions should be taught in the schools because they help us learn about others. If we learn about others, then maybe we can have less prejudice (15). This is reliable proof that even the ones doing the learning feel that world religion classes are very important in a students education.

Another major argument against bringing world religion classes into the curriculum is that some parents might get the impression that their children are having beliefs, other than their own, pushed upon them. Subedi reports, A public school teacher, who had organized a field trip to an Islamic mosque to help students learn about religious diversity, cancels the trip after receiving complaints from parents (227). Most parents, no matter their religious beliefs, do not want to worry about what their children are learning about in school. Furthermore, religion is such a sensitive subject, and it is hard to know whether a parent is going to complain about a particular religious topic. It usually depends on the way teachers structure their classes, and how they present the material. In another article, the authors include a word of caution from the California 3Rs Project about teachers using role-playing to teach religious practices. It says, Role-playing runs the risk of putting students in the position of participating in activities that may violate their (or their parents) consciences (Ayers and Reid 16). In her letter, Bergman, a parent of two, states, Introducing religion into the public schools might have the unintended effect of discouraging interest in religion (22). These arguments are not persuasive either. Parents need to know that teachers can only teach religion objectively, not the actual practices of religions. Marshall says, Public school, as government entities, and the teachers in them are allowed neither to inhibit the free exercise of religious expression nor to encourage it. This means that teachers may teach about religion but may not teach the religion itself (24). Parents could easily be to blame for their childrens inadequate consideration of other religions. Since parents are a medium for explaining certain aspects of life to their children, they should clarify that there are other beliefs and ways to life other than just one. For almost all of my students, the definition of religion was Christianity, writes Subedi, their sense of religion was a product of their family beliefs and their socialization in churches (230). Learning about religions shapes students lives and can be an essential form of identity from which they derive their sense of being (230). If even parents had a little more knowledge about other religions, then they might not complain to the school board every time their children learn something new about another religion. Socialized from childhood, by their parents, to view other religions as foreign, different, and in some cases, dangerous, students struggle to appreciate and respect the importance of religious education (235).

There is substantial evidence supporting the addition of world religion courses into the public school curriculum. One reason is that students need an understanding of different religions in order to become thoughtful citizens of this country. We can all agree that the fundamental reasons for education are to build strong social characters, develop good citizens, and to teach students the lessons needed to prosper in the future. According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, they say, To be thoughtful citizens, to vote intelligently, to relate constructively to one another in school and colleges, students need to understand as much as possible of the diverse religions of the world in which they live (572). Another article includes a quote from Dr. E. D. Hirsch, Jr., who is the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation. He says, Young children are interested not just in themselves and their immediate surroundings, but also in other people, places and times We can take advantage of childrens natural curiosity and broaden their horizons by introducing them to knowledge of other times and places (qtd. in Ayers and Reid 17).

There is considerable support for the addition of world religion classes into the public school curriculum. World religion courses are necessary for students to get a complete educational experience. This addition will allow students to understand the notion of tolerance and to respect the various cultures of our world. This world demands knowledge of other religions, since the fact that we live in organized secular communities, cities, states, and countries requires that we be able to develop and rely on widely shared reason-based views on issues of justice, fairness, and moral ideals (MacKinnon 5). Having world religion classes added to the curriculum will make this world a better place to live.

Works Cited

  1. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Religion in the Curriculum. Journal of the American Academy of Religion 55.3 (1987): 569-588. JSTOR. JSTOR. 23 June 2010.
  2. Ayers, Samuel J., and Shelly Reid. Teaching About Religion in Elementary School: The Experience of One Texas District. Social Studies 96.1 Jan./Feb. 2005: 14-17. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. 23 June 2010.
  3. Boyer, Paul. In Search of the Fourth R: The Treatment of Religion in American History Textbooks and Survey Courses. The History Teacher 29.2 Feb. 1996: 195-216. JSTOR. JSTOR. 22 June 2010.
  4. Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Wikipedia Encyclopedia. 25 June 2010. .
  5. Green, Garrett. Challenging the Religious Studies Canon: Karl Barths Theory of Religion. The Journal of Religion 75.4 Oct. 1995: 473-486. JSTOR. JSTOR. 23 June 2010.
  6. Haynes, Charles C. The Truth About God in Public Schools. USA Today 21 Nov. 2005: 15a. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. 23 June 2010.
  7. Hopfe, Lewis M. Religions of the World 9th Edition Ed. Mark R. Woodard. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2004.
  8. Marshall, Joanne M. How Teachers Can Still Teach About Religion. Education Digest 69.5 Jan. 2004: 23-27. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. 22 June 2010.
  9. McCreery, Elaine. Preparing Primary School Teachers To Teach Religious Education. British Journal of Religious Education 27.3 Sep. 2005: 265-277. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. 24 June 2010.
  10. Religion in Public-School Education. The Biblical World 31.4 Apr. 1908: 243-246. JSTOR. JSTOR. 23 June 2010
  11. Seward, Kristina. Religions in School OK in Modesto; Study Finds Wide Support for the High School Course. McClatchy Newspapers, Inc. 12 May 2006: B1. Government Periodicals Index. Lexis-Nexis. 24 June 2010
  12. Subedi, Binaya. Preservice Teachers Beliefs and Practices: Religion and Religious Diversity. Equity and Excellence in Education 39 (2006): 227-238. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. 24 June 2010.
  13. Tweed, Thomas A. et al. Forum: Teaching the Introductory Course in American Religion. Religion and American Culture 12.1 (2002): 1-30. JSTOR. JSTOR. 23 June 2010.

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An Essay on the Controversy on Religion and Public Education. (2021, Sep 10). Retrieved from

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