Online NewsHour Forum: Teaching Religion

Schools across America are talking about religion. But the question many educators are asking is not about prayer in the classroom, but about religion as curriculum.

Last December, the Department of Education issued new guidelines for the teaching of religion to every public school in the country.

The guidelines represented a change in most schools' policies. Most districts removed religion from classroom discussions after a 1962 Supreme Court decision forbidding government-led prayer in public schools.

With the new guidelines, teachers are now encouraged to discuss religion, to actively teach civic values and morals, and to allow students to express their beliefs in school assignments.

But questions remain about how the guidelines should be interpreted. Some schools have brought in guest speakers to discuss religious ceremonies, a practice some educators denounce. And some parents object to teachers using religious texts like the Bible to talk about holidays.

Defenders like Charles Haynes, a religious scholar who helped write the guidelines, say the goal is to define for teachers how students can be educated about religious ethics and values.

"The [Supreme] [C]ourt was trying to say that there is a place for religion in the public schools, but it must be an academic place in the curiculum," Haynes told The NewsHour's Betty Ann Bowser. "Just as we learn about all kind of things in history, you also learn about religion."

How do you think religion should be taught in schools? How can educators be sure that religion is being taught objectively? Should teachers discuss religious values? How should students learn about religious traditions and ceremonies?

The Freedom Forum's Charles Haynes and comparative religion teacher Jim Maechling respond to your questions.

Ryan Preston of San Francisco, CA asks:

To what degree does this change in curriculum have to do with the changing definition of religion? Is there a shift happening in the connotation of the word, from congressional faith to religion as a domain of history? If so, is that change affecting the way religion is taught?


Charles Haynes responds:

Thank you for your interesting question. The change in the curriculum is due to a variety of trends in our society. In the mid-1980s, textbook trials in Tennessee and Alabama alerted many educators to the problems associated with ignoring religion in reading and history texts used in public schools. Three textbook studies that appeared during that period confirmed that public school textbooks were largely silent about religion.

Many groups from all sides of the debate came together to draft consensus guidelines on how public schools may teach about religion (an effort I co-chaired with attorney Oliver Thomas). Now, more than a decade later, textbooks are beginning to do a better job of including religion, state standards include more references to teaching about religion, and programs like our California 3Rs Project (Rights, Responsibilities, and Respect) are training teachers to teach about religion in ways that are constitutionally and educationally sound.

The emergence of the field of religious studies over the past four decades has indeed re-defined what we mean by "religion" (or perhaps what we mean by the "study of religion"). And this redefinition has indeed changed how religion is taught. The study of religion was at one time confined largely to "Bible departments" in private colleges and universities. Today, religious studies is a well-developed academic field. Most institutions of higher learning - including state colleges and universities - have religious studies programs.

The American Academy of Religion (university professors of religious studies) has just appointed a new task force to explore how higher education can work with public schools to encourage appropriate academic study of religion. The challenge is to make religious studies in the k-12 curriculum age-appropriate and authentic. The university model of the "scientific study of religion" is not the best fit for the elementary and secondary grades. We are working to develop good resources and training models that help teachers in public schools teach about religion with accuracy, sensitivity, fairness, and empathy.

One more note: The explosion of religious pluralism in the United States has also contributed to our "redefinition" of religion and made study of religion more important for citizenship in a diverse society.

For more information on how to address these issues in public schools, consult our web site.


Jim Maechling responds:

I'm not really sure if there is a shift happening in the connotation of the word "religion". There has been an on-going debate over the years in my class over an accurate definition of religion itself. Webster's defines it as "belief in and worship of God or gods."

However, do the major Chinese belief systems such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism qualify because they do not deal with the existence of God? Or should they be classified as philosophies because they present a way of life? As a history teacher, I've always regarded religion as a major influence. Cultural traditions, holy wars, inquisitions, revolutions, freedom movements, terrorism, political leaders, artistic masterpieces - all come out of religious conviction.

John Hachmann of San Diego CA asks:

As an atheist, I am wondering if a non-believer was ever invited to present his/her views to the students. If not, is there a reason?


Charles Haynes responds:

You raise a very important issue. A balanced curriculum should include a variety of perspectives. The First Amendment does not require "equal time" (which would be impossible given the great variety of religious and non-religious views). But it does require that decisions about which religion will be taught and how much will be taught be based on academic considerations (e.g., what do we need to teach in order to teach a good U. S. history course?).

In a course that covers some of the major worldviews, it would be important to include information about freethinkers, humanists, and atheists. The course featured in the NewsHour segment is a World Religions course. I assume that the teacher covers the five or six major world traditions. I'm not sure if atheism is covered. If I were teaching the course, I would include a unit on non-believers - a growing segment of our population.


Jim Maechling responds:

I've actually never had an atheist guest speak to the comparative religions class nor offer to do so. This may be because of the general nature of the belief itself. However, atheist and agnostic students express their beliefs openly to the class on a daily basis. Also, some have made formal presentations of their views related to research. One student made a compelling case after reading Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell.

Greg Schubert of Fort Collins, CO asks:

It is hard for me to see how schools can teach about religion using reason and human knowledge when many religions claim to be beyond reason and human knowledge. Are astrology and Scientology religions? Should they be taught in schools?


Charles Haynes responds:

Religious traditions do indeed make claims that are metaphysical. But reason and "knowing" are central to all religious traditions, even thought their ultimate claims may be beyond reason. (The problem of "knowledge" is, of course, one of the major discussions in philosophy and theology. Suffice to say, there are many ways of "knowing" - not all of them based on empirical evidence.)

In any case, reason is used to study any subject, including religion. We can, for example, learn about what Roman Catholics believe about the Holy Trinity even though this concept of God can not be "proved" or "disproved" by human reason. Religious studies informs students about what people believe and practice in the various traditions. Such teaching involves the same academic guidelines as teaching about politics, social issues, history or any other complex topic.

What religions are taught depends on the academic requirements of the curriculum. A good U.S. history course for example, must include a good bit of information about many of the Christian and Jewish groups that played a major role in our early history. Other religions may be discussed when they appear in the historical narrative. A World History course will look at the various traditions important in the civilizations under study. It is doubtful that astrology and Scientology will come up in such courses, given the need to cover the major events and ideas of history.

The First Amendment doesn't require "equal time" to all religions in the curriculum. But it does require that there be good academic reasons for deciding which religions will be taught. I could imagine, however, a current events discussion in high school (or a discussion of court cases in civics) necessitating some discussion of what astrology is all about or what Scientolgists believe. For example, a discussion of the current controversy over Scientology in Germany might require that students understand something about what Scientology is all about.

Keep in mind, of course, that public schools do not teach any religion. They may, however, teach about religion where appropriate as part of a complete education.


Jim Maechling responds:

Coincidentally, you made the exact point expressed by a student in philosophy class just yesterday! We were discussing Soren Kierkegaard's concept of the "Leap of Faith". I agree with him that there are spiritual regions that go well beyond the limits of reason and human knowledge. These areas are so subjective and personal that they transcend logic and vocabulary, into the realm of the mystical. But in a class that is teaching about religion, we can acknowledge and respect that these places do exist within the individual human mind and heart.

Astrology is an ancient belief system that has been re-elevated almost to the religious level by many today - especially New Age people. I tell my ancient history students that no king or emperor in those times would ever go to war or make a treaty without consulting his astrologers. In fact, I thought Nancy Reagan took a bad rap for using astrology during the 1980s when she scheduled President Reagan's Cold War summit meetings with Soviet Premier Gorbachev. It worked, didn't it? As for Scientology, I have no personal experience. I know that quite a few big name celebrities are members. Some people say they are a cult. Then we get into "What is a cult?" One person's true faith is another person's cult. Often in history, cults have turned out to be the "embryos" of new religions.

Kess Frey of Anchorage, AK asks:

I feel that voluntary exposure to experimental methods like prayer, ritual, yoga and meditation are an essential part of the quest for awareness. Do you think these methods should be used in the classroom? Why or why not?


Charles Haynes responds:

No. It is unconstitutional for public school teachers to lead students in prayer, yoga, meditation or any other religious practice. Education, not spiritual awareness, is the mission of the public school. Faith formation (including spiritual awareness) is the responsibility of the family and faith communities, not the public school.

Students, of course, may pray or meditate in public schools alone or in groups as long as such activities don't interfere with the rights of others or disrupt the school. But teachers may not either inculcate or denigrate religion or religious practice.

Some teachers decide to "role play" meditation or introduce yoga to students as a way of "teaching about" various religions or exposing students to these practices. In my view, recreating religious practices or ceremonies through role-playing or any other method should not take place in a public school classroom. Such activities, no matter how carefully planned or well-intentioned, risk undermining the integrity of the faith involved. Moreover, role-playing religious practices may also violate the conscience of students who are asked to participate.

Some lower courts may allow yoga to be taught in a public school if it is done in a way that is entirely divorced from any religious content or message (i.e., purely a physical exercise). I would still suggest that this not be done. In my view, yoga cannot be divorced (nor should it be) from its religious roots. And for many parents, yoga remains a religious practice no matter how "secularized." The courts have been clearer about prayer and meditation: Public schools may not promote or lead students in these activities.

For more information about the constitutional and educational guidelines for dealing with religion in the classroom, consult our web site.


Jim Maechling responds:

Yes, if they are approached properly and the students are not pressured to accept or participate in any religious ritual or doctrine. All activities in my comparative religions class are optional. The course is an elective. I don't think it would have survived over three decades in a multi-cultural public high school unless it presented all religions fairly and with deep respect.

The only disappointment I had in watching the NewsHour video segment on my class related to the meditation with the Buddhist monk. Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum said this was an "inappropriate" classroom activity. I have great respect for Professor Haynes' sense of fairness and feel that he might have reached a different conclusion if he had observed the entire lesson in its context.

The monk, Reverend Kusala, was showing my students the same method he teaches juveniles in prison to reduce stress and sleep at night. In about three minutes, he rings his bell and tells them: "Say to yourself... As I breathe in I relax. As I breathe out I smile." Would you call this activity sacred or secular? To equate this with something like the mass or communion is absurd to me. There is no worshiping of the Buddha or anything like that going on my classroom. All the major world religions have developed forms of meditation, but they are presented in my class as a secular activity.

Also, consider that most recent studies indicate addictions to nicotine, alcohol, and drugs are steadily rising among teenagers because they are under enormous pressure. Yoga and meditation have become popular in today's culture as healthy, non-chemical alternatives. What's wrong with introducing these ideas to high school students?

Craig Schwanke of Herndon, VA asks:

If civic values and morals and religion have to be taught in public schools, why not teach about morals in either history/social studies classes or as a part of a literature class? Wouldn't that help remove the possibility teachers could insert their own beliefs into their lessons?


Charles Haynes responds:

One of the most significant areas of "common ground" for many Americans is the desire to have strong character education in the public schools. Three is growing recognition across the religious and political spectrum that character education in schools must be an essential component of the effort to develop civic virtue and moral character in our nation's youth.

But character education in public schools is not teaching about religion. We need both. In public schools, where teachers may neither promote nor denigrate religion, the core moral values (e.g., honesty, respect, caring) widely agreed to in the community may be taught if done so without religious indoctrination. At the same time, core values should not be taught in such a way as to suggest that religious authority is unnecessary or unimportant. Sound character education programs affirm the value of religious and philosophical commitments and avoid any suggestion that morality is simply a matter of individual choice without reference to absolute truth.

Teaching about religion is the academic study of religion, where appropriate, in history, literature and other courses. Teachers must be prepared to do this properly so that they do not insert their own views. We ask teachers as professionals to teach about many topics and issues fairly and objectively (e.g., politics). Teaching about religion fairly and academically is challenging. But with good resources and proper training, it can be done. I have worked with thousands of teachers over the past decade, helping them to learn how to teach about religion. In my experience, the vast majority of teachers are willing and able to get it right. The problems we have in public schools are when there is no training or there are poor resources.

We don't have a choice. Character education must be central to the mission of our public schools - for the sake of our youth and for our nation. The Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C. provides excellent resources for helping schools to develop and sustain strong character education programs. (

We also don't have much choice concerning teaching about religion. How can we teach history, literature, art, or music properly without including study about religion? The question isn't "should we teach about religion or not?" The question is "how should we do it?" Fortunately, there are now many good resources to help teachers teach about religion under the guidelines of the First Amendment.


Jim Maechling responds:

Morals, ethical values, and religion are taught indirectly in some form across the entire curriculum of most schools. Literature and social studies are particularly appropriate areas because human behavior is analyzed in either fictional or non-fictional terms. In my world history classes next week, actual survivors of the Holocaust will be sharing their tragic experiences in the Nazi camps. It is impossible to read or hear oral history such as this without forming powerful moral judgements.

The danger that some teachers will abuse their professional position by inserting their own beliefs in to lessons is always there. Sometimes this can be a delicate line that every teacher must face. For example, should a Government teacher reveal whether he's a Democrat or a Republican?

The First Amendment Center's recent publication, A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools prepares teachers: "How do I respond if students ask about my religious beliefs?" It says that there may be different responses depending on the classroom situation and the maturity of the students. The main point is that teachers "?may not turn the question into an opportunity to proselytize for or against religion." To me, it ultimately comes down to issues of personal integrity and common sense.



Online NewsHour Forum: Teaching Religion --