Should Religion be Taught in Public Schools?

I received this e-mail:

My name is James Morrison, and I teach a World Religions course at Red Wing High School (Red Wing, Minnesota). It has not been easy. Over the years I have been condemned by Christian fundamentalists for “polluting the minds of children with false ideas” and for “doing the devil’s work.” I have been teaching for seventeen years, and I am writing a book about my experiences and the challenges of teaching about religion in public schools (I teach juniors and seniors). . . . The bulk of the book will be categorically divided into chapters. Each chapter will be a collection of letter responses (answers) to the following question: “What (if anything) should public schools teach children about religion?”

Here’s my response:

I once visited a Taoist temple in Chinatown that was housed in a brownstone apartment building. After I trudged up three flights, an elderly priest in indigo robes buzzed open an iron gate and welcomed me into a single large hall. Aside from a few hanging lanterns, most of the light came from the front of the building, where a series of sliding doors had been thrown open to a balcony and the daylight beyond. A large altar crowded with Taoist and Buddhist statues faced the opening, but figures of Jesus and Mohammed were also there to receive the chanting, incense, and gentle sounding of bells in worship. It seems to me that we should be just as universal in educating our students, and that education goes hand in hand with veneration.

Public schools should give students an education about all the world’s religions in an age-appropriate way and in relationship to the overall high school curriculum. A complete education in history, government, or literature is impossible otherwise. One cannot adequately study European or Middle Eastern history without exploring the long and complicated interaction of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Understanding the very beginnings of the United States requires comprehending the issue of religious freedom. And how could we possibly read the Song of Roland, the Canterbury Tales, or the Divine Comedy without probing the religious themes embodied in the texts? A complete education requires understanding religion.

A comparative religion class offered at the high school level would provide even greater gains: it would promote tolerance. One need not become a Buddhist to understand and appreciate that spiritual tradition. If one is Protestant, there’s nothing wrong with studying Catholicism. In this day where the tensions with Islam are high, it’s imperative not to demonize it. After all, it’s the very attitude of demonization that inflames Islam against us.

Some parents are concerned with exposing their children to other religions—as if the mere study of another belief would make their children run away from home. This is puzzling because we don’t apply the same attitude to other subjects. If a child is good at science, does that mean she shouldn’t study literature for fear she’ll become a writer? If a child is good at literature, does that mean he should be forbidden from taking physical education for fear that he’ll want to become a professional athlete? Do we stop our children from going to a friend’s house for dinner for fear that they’ll then want to move to a “better” family? We do none of these things; there’s no harm in exposing our children to comparative religions.

High school is fundamental to establishing a child’s stability for the remainder of his or her life. During this formative time, we equip our students with as many skills as we can. We demand that they study the entire range of subjects from the humanities to the sciences, from physical education to the arts. We know that they will fall back on their educations every day of the rest of their lives. Yet when it comes to religion, we leave that to haphazard sidebars in textbooks or tentative ventures into somebody else’s house of worship. If we are concerned about children leaving their home religion, opposing the mention of religion in schools will not stop that—it only leaves that inevitable process a clumsy and ignorant one. According to the Pew Forum, about half of American adults change religious affiliation at least once during their lives. The survey further found that most of those who decided to leave their childhood faith said that they did so prior to the age of twenty-four. Knowing that half of all students will be searching means that we should provide the proper basis for inquiry. In addition, for the other half that will stay with their family religion, we can provide greater security as they learn the good points of those beliefs and how all religions address the same questions.

I am not advocating the teaching of a single religion, proselytizing for any religion, nor the teaching of religious practices without a great range and wide experience. No student should be required to renounce, contradict, or violate their own religious beliefs for the sake of exploring other ideas. As long as that principle of respecting a student’s personal religion is observed even as other systems are being studied, then all will be well.

My own education parallels all that I’ve said. I was raised as a Methodist, attending both Sunday school and nighttime Chinese language school at a church just half a block from the Taoist temple I’ve described. I was in church six days a week. In the meantime, though, I kept encountering references to Taoism in literature, history, and art. Furthermore, I only got a larger understanding of my own culture and religious traditions not through any family or community settings, but in college classes. Eventually, I have moved completely into Taoism and have written extensively about it. However, that does not mean that I have lost any respect for Christianity, and I remain interested in all the world’s religions. When I travel, I visit churches, temples, and holy sites of all kinds. After all these years, I’m still following the example of that altar I saw in Chinatown. Every religion is worthy of respect. Each person should be allowed to choose the religion that seems best, and the commitment to religion is only strengthened by learning and tolerance.


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