Tackling Misconceptions Surrounding Religion in Classrooms [The Atlantic]

Written on 22 October 2015, 08:15am under As Seen In

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Linus van Pelt, the philosopher of the Peanuts gang, has a poignant line in the comic strip’s animated Halloween special:

I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

That practice carries over into schools, where discussing religion specifically is often shunned or increasingly the cause of an uproar. A new book, Faith Ed, explores how teaching world religions can soften the divisions between children living and growing up in America, which is a country of many faiths and beliefs. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the author, who offered some insights and observations.

Melinda D. Anderson: “Teach, not preach” was a common refrain as a guiding principle for how schools should introduce the teaching of religion. Talk about the inherent tension between teaching students about religion and the credible fear expressed by parents especially of proselytizing.

Linda K. Wertheimer: Some parents feared that if their children learned about another religion, they might fall out of love with their own faith. Or if a child came from an atheist or agnostic family, maybe he or she might suddenly want to embrace a religion. However, I wouldn’t describe that fear as credible when referring to world-history courses that wrap in instruction about different religions. The courses I observed teach students basic information about three or more religions to help them understand the geography, history, politics, and culture of a country or region of the world. Teachers were not asking students to pray or perform religious rituals.

If anything, schools are in a better place than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was commonplace for teachers to lead children in prayer and recite Bible verses as part of the morning routine. The 1963 court ruling prohibiting teacher-led prayer gradually led to bigger efforts to educate children about many religions. But there is a real fear of proselytizing when it comes to classes about the Bible as literature or history. Parents should be the most concerned about those types of courses. Those classes can be taught objectively, and in fact, I found such an example at Lumberton High School, the target of so much fuss over a teacher’s lessons on Islam.

The biggest fear about world religion courses is how teachers are teaching about Islam and whether they are sugar-coating radical Islam. Some critics have questioned whether teachers are indoctrinating children in Islam. The irony is that most teachers in this country reflect the nation’s demographics. Most of them are white and female, and many of them are Christian. It’s unlikely they would try to convert children to Islam. The key to preventing classes from turning into preaching is training the teachers.

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