Lennon Revisited: Imagine Religious Education
Since 1971, all over the world people have sung the lyrics of John Lennon’s song, suggesting that the absence of religion would create a world of peace. The fact is that religion is a vital part of peoples’ lives and the source of great good in society in spite of abominations by some in the name of religion, even in the United States. So rather than abolish the practice of faith we should commit as a nation to opening a dialogue that begins with mandatory education about religious differences. With that, we can imagine a world where our differences are celebrated and encouraged rather than demonized and condemned. It’s a crazy idea, isn’t it? Perhaps it is, but it’s not altogether unreasonable. Such a concept is the dream of many and people all over the world have made great progress toward making this our reality. However, the problem with differences is that they can be perceived as too different to tolerate and some reside on such far sides of the spectrum that finding middle ground can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Possibly the most controversial topic and point of difference of all time is religion. Religion is often central to the identity of a people group. A statistic on the website “Adherents.com”, the largest database of its kind, states that theologists propose that there are as many as 4,200 recognized religions across the globe. History’s record of conflicts attribute to many a disagreement of religion. According to an article in The Daily Mail written by Ryan O’Hare, religious differences have been causing conflict as far back as 700 B.C. Mesoamerica. With it’s almost as if there isn’t enough room for them to exist together peacefully.
Many believe that the only way to find peace and balance is through understanding, which may derive most successfully from education. It is becoming increasingly important to educate our young people, and even a fair amount of our old people, on controversial social topics such as religion. There are far too many misconceptions about many religious practices and beliefs which could be rectified by a basic understanding of different religions and the cultures surrounding them. It is for this reason that a course covering the most basic aspects of the world’s religions should be made a mandatory component of the public high school curriculum.
More often than not, the only formal education a student receives on the subject of religion comes if they choose to take a course covering it in a higher educational setting or if they enrolled at a private school with a religious affiliation. This is because of the concept called “the separation of church and state.” Though still relevant, the true meaning of this phrase has been distorted over time, almost like in a game of “Whisper down the lane.” To be clear, the separation of church and state defines the distance in the relationship between organized religion and the nation state. Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, this copy of which was obtained from the online database of the Library of Congress. It includes this excerpt:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson’s position is that the Bill of Rights prohibits the establishment of a national church, in turn, preventing the government from interfering with a person’s right to expression of religion by means of supporting one religion over others. After all, this is the reason English pilgrims came to America in the first place. Nicknamed “Separatists” because their religious practices didn’t conform to those of the Church of England, they sailed to America so that they could be free to practice their own religion without fear of persecution or discrimination. In fact, there was a time when America was likely the most accepting as well as diverse nation in terms of religion. People from all over the world fled to America seeking religious liberty. In the article “Republicans Turn God Upside Down with Their Twisted Version of Religious Liberty” for the Huffington Post, Cody Cain explains that the early colonies were populated by Dutch Calvinists, English Puritans, English Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, French Huguenots, German and Swedish Lutherans, as well as Mennonites, Jews, and Amish from various European countries. Thomas Jefferson was adamant about supporting and maintaining the separation of church and state to ensure that each citizen felt welcomed and protected by our society, regardless of who they chose to pray to.
Over time, the phrase “separation of church and state” has been so widely used and misinterpreted that it’s lost some of its salt. The separation of church and state is also designed to protect some more general religious freedoms such as being able to practice whatever religion or even no religion at all in whatever way you see fit. The United States was founded on biblical principles, most of which serve our country well and support the values of most American citizens, regardless of their religion. However, we cannot claim to uphold our Constitution including the First Amendment while our laws refuse to respect the lifestyles guided by different religions, provided that the practice of which does not put any other liberties at risk. On the other hand, allowing our society to divide itself by religious denomination would be discrimination would breed an environment of resentment and hostility. Having legal freedoms yet being oppressed by the general societal stance on the matter isn’t true freedom.
For example, Muslims are legally permitted to practice their religion in America but after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, animosity towards Muslim Americans skyrocketed. As a statistic to support his claims in his article “Impact of 9/11 on Muslim Americans, Abdul Malik Mujahid claims that one in four Muslims either knows someone who has or have personally experienced an act of anti-Muslim discrimination, harassment, verbal abuse or physical attack since 9/11.
This discrimination and negative stance towards the entire culture isn’t just affecting those on the receiving end of it. American citizens are being misinformed about the reality of the situation. This extreme instance of widespread prejudice has blinded us to the truth about the groups involved, resulting in their abuse and our ignorance. The censorship in schools on what pertaining to religion may and may not be taught can lead to misinformation on the details of situations like the September 11th attacks.This is why we need to properly educate people on different religions. Religion is incredibly controversial and a lot of the friction could most likely be reduced if more people truly understood what they were arguing about rather than making assumptions based on information with no credible sources to back it up.
To continue with the example of September 11, many of those who’ve written articles and thesis papers similar to this one also hold the belief that being properly educated on foreign cultures and religions would have better prepared American citizens to handle the aftermath of the 2001 attacks. Racism has been around since before anyone cared to take note of it and has maintained a constant presence in America. The way in which Americans of middle eastern descent were perceived changed drastically because the attacks of 9/11 were the most mortally devastating acts of terror the world had witnessed. That day set a new precedent for the future of public safety all over the globe. In just one noticeable reaction to the attacks, the United States government created the Transportation Safety Administration which rapidly put into effect a plethora of stringent rules and restrictions for the safety of passengers and goods on land, air and sea. The TSA’s own website states that their mission is to protect the nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
The Guardian posted excerpts from a book called “The Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustice”, edited by Alia Malek. It details the testimonies of several victims of discrimination and foul treatment in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2006, Raed Jarrar, a 28-year-old architect and political advocate of Iraqi and Palestinian descent was stopped from boarding a plane because of his t-shirt. It read in Arabic and in English “We Will Not Be Silent.” The TSA officer told him that because people couldn’t read what it said that it would offend other passengers and that if Raed wanted to board the plane he would need to turn the shirt inside out or they would buy him a new one. Raed boarded the plane in grey t-shirt with “New York” printed across his chest only to find that the seat he had booked in the front of the plane had been given to another passenger while he was asked to sit in the very back of the plane near the bathroom.
This very situation and others similar to it are the reason why a formal education on religion is so crucial to the future of our nation. A main function of school is to prepare students to become productive members of society, thus equipping them to lead our country in a direction that will ensure the prosperity of our people and way of life. In order to accomplish this goal, those designing the curriculum must understand that it’s only effective when recognized as holistic, meaning that the student will never reach his or her fullest potential unless given an education comprised of components from every subject matter.
Returning to the separation of church and state and how this concept plays into the grand scheme of things, it imposes limitations on the way our public schools are allowed to address the topic of religion. To reiterate, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In relation to an educational setting, no government institution or subsidiary can offer any kind of support to a religiously affiliated program, including schools. This includes funding an educational course promoting religion.
However, there is a window of opportunity that does not violate the Constitution or its Amendments. While preventing the teaching of religion, the constitution says nothing on the subject of teaching about religion. Yes, there is a difference. As explained in the article “Religion in the Public Schools” on the Anti-Defamation League website, to teach a religion would imply an endorsement. Teaching about a religion merely means supplying information in the interest of education in order to inform and enlighten someone on a certain topic. As long as the curriculum and instructor show no bias, it’s completely appropriate within the bounds of the Constitution. On the website “The Knightly Herald,” Olivia Godfrey claimed in her article”Why Religion Should Not Be Taught In Public Schools” that it would never work because it’s impossible to remain completely unbiased while teaching the material or that children aren’t mature enough to truly understand and think critically about the subject matter in a way that would prove to be worth the effort. The concern pertaining to the accountability of the teachers is not new but neither is the solution. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development promoted the book “Effective Supervision” by Robert J. Marzano, which clearly states that supervisor evaluations of teachers have been a regular part of that career field since the mid 1800s and will not be stopping any time soon. The evaluations would now simply include a new rubric for a different course to ensure the integrity of the course and that of the instructor guiding it just as for the rest of the general education courses.
“Teaching Tolerance” is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center and in Carrie Kilman’s article “One Nation, Many Gods” provides the testimony of the Modesto school district where, in spite of the skepticism, officials have already set this plan in motion and it’s working effectively. In 2000, the public school district of Modesto, California designed a mandatory, semester-long world religions course for 9th graders. After beginning the class with an overview of First Amendment rights and responsibilities, the class dives into six religious units, covering Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. The opposition from some parents and leader in the community was heavy and intense. Teachers feared backlash and criticism, especially if they were to make mistakes in teaching. To avoid such reactions, numerous precautions were taken and rules set in place to ensure success: Teachers are not allowed at anytime to reveal their religious affiliation to avoid confusion with teachers imposing their own bias or beliefs on students. The curriculum is highly structured and leaves nearly no room for improvisation. Each class in the district receives the same books, lesson plans, notes, and other learning materials to keep everyone on the same page. Outside speakers are not permitted and each religion receives the same amount of class time. One of the few ways teachers are permitted to deviate from the lesson plan is whether or not they choose to cover the chapter in the the textbook on atheism. Some do and some don’t but that is up to the discretion of each teacher.
To ensure the legitimacy and adequacy of the course, the teacher-led committee that created Modesto’s curriculum worked closely with religious leaders in the local community during the course’s development. After deciding upon which religions would be included in the curriculum, the committee divided into teams to research each faith. They toured houses of worship in several different faiths and sought guidance from religious leaders of each faith and asked them to review the textbook they planned to use in the course. “There are an equal number of pages given to each religion,” a committee member said. “We knew they would count.”
To further document the progress and eventual outcome of the project, researchers from the First Amendment Center closely followed the course and all of its participants. In addition, the researchers interviewed the students immediately before, during, immediately after and six months after the course had ended to better understand the mindset of the course’s participants and how the program may have altered them. Specifically, they wanted to know if the diversity of the course had any impact on the students’ religious tolerance. “We’ve never really known what effect it would have if we taught more about different religions in public schools,” director of the Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment Center said. “We’ve always said it was a good idea – but in terms of empirical evidence, what it does for our kids, this study is the first indication of what it might do.”
Time and time again, students were found to have become more open minded and willing to defend the religious rights of others. Students themselves said they felt the course had broadened their views and empowered them against faith-based bullying. “I didn’t know anything about any religion other than mine,” said Kristin Busby, now a senior. “By the end [of the semester], we were all much more accepting toward one another. You realize that we’re all not that different after all. We all have these necessities, and these religions provide for those necessities, just in different ways.”
Perhaps the greatest fear of parents was that their children’s perception and opinions on religion, specifically the ones they were raised in would become distorted. They were concerned their children would become confused and start to have doubts about their own faith. However, contrary to the fears of parents and expectations of researchers, this increase in religious tolerance was not accompanied by any change in the students’ personal religious convictions and opinions. “My mom and dad were biased against this course,” said 9th-grader Richard Dysart. “They were afraid I’d convert and get confused about what my family believes. But if you’re part of a culture, you won’t switch just by learning about how other people live.”
The first year of the new curriculum was seen as a great success by researchers, supervisors and the community alike. Modesto was eager to continue with the curriculum into the 2001-2002 school year. Then 9/11 happened. The teachers cited the 30 hours of training required to teach the course as the guide to helping them navigate the difficult questions and conversations that arose that year. They made sure to handle the in-class discussions carefully and made a clear distinction between Islam as a religion and the people involved in the terror attacks. Across the nation, reports of harassment of Muslim students at school escalated quickly after 9/11. In Modesto, not a single instance of anti-Muslim harassment was reported in the 2001-2002 school year.
The value of these programs is in how knowledge empowers individuals to understand and communicate with each other in spite of differences. It prepares us to navigate the most challenging and chaotic circumstances. Mandating education about religion is not only a worthy investment but a moral obligation to ensure a world in which our differences are celebrated and encouraged for the good of all. If we fail to make the necessary efforts then whatever negative side effects we experience, there is no one to blame for them but ourselves.
- Adherents.com. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.adherents.com/
- MailOnline, R. O. (2015, December 22). Religion has been causing conflicts for more than 2,000 years: Rather than binding ancient societies together, belief systems may have torn them apart in Mesoamerica. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3370189/Religion-causing-conflicts-2-000-years-binding-ancient-societies-belief-systems-torn-apart-Mesoamerica.html
- Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury BaptistsThe Final Letter, as Sent. (n.d.). Retrieved December 02, 2016, from https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html
- Cain, C. (2016, May 09). Republicans Turn God Upside Down with Their Twisted Version of Religious Liberty. Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cody-cain/republicans-turn-god-upsi_b_9857402.html
- Impact of 9/11 on Muslim Americans. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2016, from http://www.soundvision.com/article/impact-of-911-on-muslim-americans
- Mission. (2016). Retrieved December 01, 2016, from https://www.tsa.gov/about/tsa-mission
- After 9/11: ‘You no longer have rights’ – extract. (2011, September 02). Retrieved December 03, 2016, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/02/after-9-11-muslim-arab-american-stories
- You are being redirected… (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2016, from http://archive.adl.org/religion_ps_2004/religion.html
- Why Religion Should Not Be Taught in Public Schools – Olivia Godfrey. (2013, September 23). Retrieved December 02, 2016, from http://knightlyherald.com/why-religion-should-not-be-taught-in-public-schools-olivia-godfrey/
- Marzano, R. J. (n.d.). Chapter 2. A Brief History of Supervision and Evaluation. Retrieved December 03, 2016, from http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/110019/chapters/A-Brief-History-of-Supervision-and-Evaluation.aspx
- Kilman, C. (2007, Fall). One Nation, Many Gods. Retrieved November 25, 2016, from http://www.tolerance.org/magazine/number-32-fall-2007/feature/one-nation-many-gods