Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Teaching About Religion in Public Schools

I’ll quote just the first part of this article:

Groups of students, teachers and administrators from five Oakland County school districts are taking part in the Religious Diversity Initiative – a program funded by the Community Foundation of Southeastern Michigan and sponsored by the Oakland County Superintendents Association, the Michigan Region of the National Conference for Community and Justice, and the Jewish Community Council.

As part of the voluntary, nontaxpayer funded program, participants from the Berkley, Bloomfield Hills, Clarkston, Walled Lake and West Bloomfield school districts are visiting local religious institutions to learn from clergy about the beliefs they espouse.

The goal, said program coordinator and Jewish Community Council public relations associate Eric Adelman, is to promote understanding and respect among students of various belief systems.

The Michigan chapter of American Atheists has begun a campaign to fight against this program on the basis of separation of church and state, despite the fact that it’s privately funded and voluntary. Quite frankly, they’re being absurd. The Supreme Court has long held that teaching about world religions is permissable as long as it’s not done in a manner which promotes one of them. This is a textbook example of how you can teach about religious views and encourage understanding without violating the establishment clause. The only thing that I would do to modify the program is that I would add humanism to it, perhaps by including a Unitarian/Universalist church that is so inclined into the mix. I think this is exactly the kind of thing that we need to be doing, especially in a time of increasing distrust across religious divides.

After 9/11 in particular, we’ve seen how easily religious divisions can be turned into battle lines. Promoting understanding of other religions is crucial to combat this problem. The more we see those of other beliefs as caricatures, as mere abstractions – as THEM – the more fractured our nation and the world becomes. Building bridges between these groups through education about other religious and ethical traditions helps to foster understanding, which in turn diminishes unjustified fear and hatred. If the teaching is done well, it will foster an appreciation of diversity. This is true multiculturalism, as opposed to most of the fads, like afrocentrism and its ideological brethren, that pass under that often misused term.

One thing I have learned through the study of the different religious traditions over the years is that, at their core, they are remarkably similar. What Christians call the Golden Rule is not unique, it is found in every conceivable tradition in one form or another. This principle is found in the writings of Baha’u’llah in the Bah’ai’ faith, the Mahabharata of Hinduism, the Udana-Varga of Buddhism, the Doctrine of the Mean from Confucianism, the Hadiths of Al-Nawawi in Islam, the Acarangasutra of Jainism, the Talmud of Judaism, the Tao teh Ching of Taoism, the writings of Plato, Seneca and other classical philosophers, and the Humanist Manifesto in modern times. This is the basis of all ethical reasoning and it is as close to universal as any concept can possibly be.

By teaching these commonalities, and an appreciation of the various religious beliefs, programs such as these can be a powerful tool against ignorance and hatred. They can help us to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of ideas and traditions not our own and help us to understand that once we strip away all of the artificial minutiae that we get so focused on, most people are substantially the same. The vast majority of human beings, regardless of their religion, want a world of freedom, peace and justice. We want a world where we can share our lives with family and friends without being derailed by hatred or fear or violence.

Comments

  1. #1 liz
    May 1, 2004

    As our nation becomes more and more diverse, programs such as these become essential, so that we citizens can speak to each other over the walls of our many loyalties.

    In particular, the various world religions need to be taught throughout the years–the very simplest ideas to the 1st grades and the most complex to the 12th grades.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    May 1, 2004

    Wow, you really went back into the archives to find this one. I agree with you, obviously. Unfortunately, the one thing that would block it from happening are the extremists within atheism and within Christianity in the United States. Ironic how often those extremes agree with each other.

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