Dr. Tim Hall
Religious literacy is important to our students since helps to build a religious pluralism that strengthens a pluralistic democracy. Research demonstrates that knowledge of other faith traditions helps to eliminate prejudice, hate, and intolerance. Therefore, teachers shouldn’t avoid the topic of religion. Instead, they should support and incorporate it into the classroom.
Yet understandably, there is some hesitancy with teachers. So some deeper more sustained reasons for incorporating religious literacy into the classroom would be helpful. These arguments can be used separately or jointly to provide a solid case for teaching about religion in the schools with the first three being advanced by Warren Nord and Charles Haynes in the text Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum published at the end of the millennium.
- Civic Argument: Schools must have a common ground. We need to learn to listen to and respect each other on deeply held understandings. So curriculum should reflect inclusivity—teaching about religious and secular ways of thinking.
- Constitutional Argument: Schools should remain neutral, meaning religiously neutral, neutral among religions, and neutral between religion and nonreligion. Schools should not ignore religious perspectives of thinking and living and only teach secular views of thinking and living, which can be religiously contested.
- Liberal Education Argument: Schools based on a liberal arts model of education require that students should be liberally educated. So they must understand a good deal of the content and context of religions. Liberal education is a long educational dialogue in which students listen to, reflect on, and think critically about a variety of perspectives tackling the most critical questions of life. Students should be learning about and from religions to gain a deeper awareness, reflectivity, and understanding of themselves and others. (1)
- Global Competence: Knowledge of religions is essential as we globalize in the twenty-first century. Our world is only getting smaller, and students will have more contact with other faith traditions. An understanding of religions will allow students to interact with others successfully. In more concrete terms using the Four Domains of Global Competence developed by the Asia Society, an understanding of religions provides students an opportunity to investigate the world beyond their immediate environment, recognize their own and others’ perspectives, and communicate their idea effectively with diverse audiences.
Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And what do we, as educators, want to change? Oppression, racism, prejudice, and discrimination so that ALL students can reach their highest potential as human beings. Religious literacy is critical to that goal.
(1) Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 1998).