NewsHour Forum: Teaching Religion
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.
December, the Department of Education issued new guidelines
for the teaching of religion to every public school in 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.
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.
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.
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.
[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."
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?
Freedom Forum's Charles Haynes and comparative religion
teacher Jim Maechling respond to your questions.
Preston of San Francisco, CA asks:
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?
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
more information on how to address these issues in public
schools, consult our web site. www.freedomforum.org
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."
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.
Hachmann of San Diego CA asks:
atheist, I am wondering if a non-believer was ever invited
to present his/her views to the students. If not, is there
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?).
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.
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
Schubert of Fort Collins, CO asks:
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frey of Anchorage, AK asks:
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?
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.
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
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
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.
more information about the constitutional and educational
guidelines for dealing with religion in the classroom, consult
our web site. www.freedomforum.org
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.
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.
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.
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?
Schwanke of Herndon, VA asks:
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
NewsHour Forum: Teaching Religion -- http://www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/april00/teaching_religion.html