Written by Don Byrd

A common refrain among those who advocate for religious literacy in the public school curriculum while being attentive to the separation of church and state is that it is ok to teach about religion so long as schools aren’t teaching religion, or promoting religious principles. But even that general distinction doesn’t go far enough to protect against improper religious entanglement, according to the tenets put forward by the American Academy of Religion and the National Council for the Social Studies.

In a piece for Education Week, Dianne L. Moore of the Religious Literacy Project, argues against the notion that such education should include instruction about religious rituals, beliefs, and practices. Here is an excerpt:

For example, in nearly all world history or world culture textbooks, students will find a “religion unit” with the primary content represented through three to five pages of multicolored charts representing the “major world religions” and highlighting their “facts” such as number of adherents, geographical location, founder or major figures, scripture, ritual practices, and beliefs. Here students learn about the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the Five Pillars of Islam, and the 10 Commandments of Judaism and Christianity.

At first glance, this may sound like a good vehicle to strengthen knowledge about religion, but the limitation of this approach is quickly revealed when reading the morning news. How will knowing the Four Noble Truths help students understand how some Buddhists in Myanmar are actively engaged in the persecution of minority Rohingya Muslims? Or how does knowing the 10 Commandments help explain why 80 percent of white Evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election? Or how will knowing the Five Pillars of Islam help explain the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan?

She points instead to four principles put forward by the American Academy of Religion and the National Council on Social Studies as a guide.

  1. There is a distinction between personal or communal religious convictions and the study of diverse assertions that constitutes the academic study of religion;
  2. Religions are internally diverse as opposed to uniform;
  3. Human interpretation and experience of religion evolves and changes in response to differing social and historical context; and
  4. Religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience and can’t be isolated in a so-called “private” sphere of faith.

Read the whole thing for more on each point. And for more on the issue of religion in the public school curriculum, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Public Schools resource page.