Written by Don Byrd
The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), a professional organization devoted to social studies education, has issued a supplement to its “Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History,” titled “Religious Studies Companion Document” (the supplement begins on Page 92). The supplement emphasizes the need for religious literacy to promote understanding and communication in our increasingly diverse society.
Religious studies analyzes the impact of religion on the structure and culture of societies, examining both historical and contemporary perspectives in order to understand how religious beliefs, practices, and communities are created, maintained, and transformed over time. Through a non-devotional approach, students gain the ability to understand religions as diverse and dynamic, to explain how religions change over time, and to analyze how culture affects religion and religion affects culture. Student inquiry into complex issues—including the dynamic relationships within a religion, between religions, and between religion and secularism—provides a unique environment to learn how to recognize and evaluate assumptions without undermining personal religious identity, to navigate diverse and shifting cultural values, to engage respectfully with diverse neighbors, and to resist common misunderstandings that have negative real-world consequences. These skills are invaluable in a society whose increasingly multicultural schools, workplaces, and local, national, and international public spheres all need informed, critical, and engaged citizens.
The study of religion from an academic, non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary school is critical for decreasing religious illiteracy and the bigotry and prejudice it fuels.
The NCSS document cites the important 2000 guidance from the Department of Education on teaching about religion in public schools as widely accepted. Those guidelines emphasize that the proper approach to is to create academic awareness through studying, not devotional experience or acceptance through the promotion of religion.