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Teaching Religion in Public Schools: A Bad Idea

1986: St. John Paul II welcomes leaders of world religions to Assisi
I have taught religion for many years. I taught at both the high school (a Catholic high school) and the college and university level. My educational background is in world religions, and I hold a B.A. and an M.A. in this field.

I am wholeheartedly against teaching religion in public schools.

Why? Because there isn't anyone who can teach it well  at most public schools. Public schools do not hire people with degrees such as mine. So, who is going to teach religion? The history teacher? The sociology teacher? The lit. teacher?

Now, all of those teachers may have some inkling of religion, as it intersects with their field of study. However, I can pretty much guarantee that none of those folks have done the work I've done.

When one of my kids was in high school, she did a "unit" on world religions in a history (I believe) class. She came home and told me what her teacher had told them about Hinduism. And I said, "That's wrong." I went and got one of my books, gave it to my daughter and said, "Show this to your teacher."

She did, and the teacher corrected herself. However, she really had NO idea what she was doing. She kept the book for awhile, to use as reference.

Now, I truly love the study of religion. I love how humanity - whenever, wherever - asks "How did I get here?" "Why do I suffer?" "What brings meaning to humanity?" And from there - we see how Muslims answer these questions, how Sikhs answer that question, how ancient Egyptians answered those questions.

While some fields of study intersect with the study of religion at some point or another, it is highly unlikely that a public school teacher has an extensive background in this. We don't allow the English teacher to teach algebra because we need someone to fill in. The gym teacher doesn't teach literature, unless she has a degree in both. Why do we think it's ok to let someone wholly unqualified teach religion?

It's too important a topic to be taught badly. Nancy Flory, in a piece at The Stream, notes one case where this is illustrated all too clearly:
The school required her to affirm that “Most Muslims’ faith is stronger than the average Christian.” The school required all students to recite the Islamic conversion prayer. The prayer, called the Shahada, states that “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.” The school also required students to profess the Five Pillars of Islam.
Wood said his daughter’s school forced her to write statements that offended and denied her Christian beliefs. When she refused to complete the assignments, she received failing grades. Her teacher sent her to the school library away from her classmates. As a result, she felt ostracized because of her Christian beliefs.
I do believe religion can be taught ONLY AS a field of study. That is, one need not subscribe to any particular faith in order to learn about that faith. (A brain surgeon does not need to have brain surgery in order to be effective at her job.) However, when it is taught badly, you get this mangled mess of kids having to "profess" the Five Pillars instead of simply learn about them.

I taught world religions in a Catholic high school, and it was valuable. As I told my students: "It is highly likely that you will have a neighbor who is Muslim, a co-worker who is Jewish, a roommate who is Sikh. It's imperative to world peace that we learn to talk to each other." And, as my fave psych professor in college used to say, "We are all more alive than we are different." (And if you're Catholic, and think this is a bad idea, go read Nostra Aetate.)

Yes, religion CAN be taught well in public schools, but until we have qualified people who can do that: STOP.


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