As a nation, we're generally uncomfortable talking about religion in the public square, in part due to our long history of church-state separation, in part because religion is considered a private matter.
While the experience of religion is personal, the effects that the institution of religion exerts on society and the ideas it generates are not. Max Weber demonstrated religion's impact on history as well as anyone ever has in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, his classic study on the relationship between Protestantism and the rise of capitalism in the West.
After three decades of downplaying religion's importance in the K-12 curriculum, the subject is thankfully making a comeback. For many students, this means learning more about religion in history and literature classes. It's about time. To believe that anyone can fully understand Constantine, the Just-War Theory, or Osama bin Laden without a basic knowledge of Arianism, Augustine, and the differing interpretations of jihad in the Quran is foolishness.
But recent flare-ups over teaching religion in public schools (see here and here) still make teachers and districts leery about broaching the subject.
Fear not, says Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center. Religion can be taught well without setting off a holy war in the community. As evidence, he points to the Modesto City Schools in California, one of the very few districts in the nation that requires its students (ninth-graders, in this case) to take a world-religion course. Haynes writes in Learning About World Religions in Public Schools, a First Amendment Center study of the district's religion requirement, that "we finally have empirical data about the educational effects of learning about religion in a public school setting." And the findings are overwhelmingly positive.
Students left the course with a greater appreciation of world religions, as increased supporters of rights for people with views different than their own, and with "a fuller appreciation of the moral values shared across differences."
This last point was critical to the Modesto administrators who established the course. According to the study, they feel that the media exacerbates religious tension by focusing on "extremist factions," thereby overlooking the common moral ground that all faiths share.
This simple reading of religious tradition speaks more to the district's desire not to offend individuals than to instruct them in world religions. In fact, not offending people is the whole point of the Modesto program. The report gives a brief nod to this reality in its conclusions. "The course's textbook provides almost no discussion of the unsavory aspects of religion. Only three paragraphs are devoted to the use of religion to justify war, persecution and the oppression of women."
The district responds this way: "The goal of the course...is to convey facts about religion, and not to have students engage in a critical evaluation of particular religions or religion in general."
This misgiving doesn't overly worry the center, but it should. The soft curriculum leads one to ask--What "facts" is the class offering?
It's true that broadly speaking, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share much in common--they are all "peoples of the book," all are monotheists, and all value human life. But to stop there leaves one with the impression that these religions read their religious texts with a similar critical eye (they do not), that they understand monotheism the same way (Christians have wrestled for centuries to explain the Trinity), and that life is valued the same across traditions (this isn't even true within each faith).
These nuances, if they can be appropriately called "nuances," are the stuff that matters. It's this detail that makes learning about religion worthwhile. Without it, students will never understand why many Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches were receptive to President Bush's creating the Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives, while most low-church Protestants were offended by the program. Why Islam as practiced in Turkey makes that country key to our efforts to expand democracy in the Muslim world. Why Osama bin Laden reads jihad as a license to kill Westerners, and most other Muslims read it as an internal struggle to remove obstacles between oneself and God.
Religion must be taught and taught well. But Modesto's model, which teaches religion as a stand-alone course that downplays the very real differences between and among world religious traditions, isn't one that does this. Better to leave the teaching of religious history in history courses, where the point of the course is to understand religion's institutional and intellectual effects on society, and not to gain a better appreciation for the ways in which religions are alike.