Another Barrier to Religion in the Classroom: Violence and Religion

Posted On 4 Jan 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

In a previous blog, I reviewed educator assumptions about religion held in the past that are not correct. These false assumptions include:

  • sacred and secular can be divided easily
  • secular ways of knowledge are neutral
  • religion is based on irrational ways of thinking

I also detailed educator concerns about bringing religion into the classroom. These concerns include:

  • insufficient understanding of the religious spectrum
  • bias for or against a particular religion
  • offending students or families

In the end, these educator concerns can be alleviated with some pre-service education or in-service PD focused on the content of religions and a constitutionally sound framework to bring that content into the classroom.

But I failed to mention another barrier to teaching about religion in the classroom. There is a perception that religion enhances violence through prejudice, conflict, and extremism that arise when different faith traditions are brought together. This can especially be seen in the past few decades as we have collectively watched in horror violent acts from a variety of religious extremists on the news. Terrorist acts in England, France, Spain, Belgium, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States have heightened media and academic focus on the role of religion in violence. (1) Examples of scholarly works on this concern include Teaching Religion and Violence published by the American Academy of Religion and Does Religion Cause Violence?

Yet, this perception of religion being the primary source of violence in the world is false. In October 2014, the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) released a comprehensive study on how religion interacts with peace. A key finding of the report was that: “religion is not the main cause of conflicts today.”(2) The report continues to state that of “35 armed conflicts from 2013, religious elements did not play a role in 14, or 40 percent.”(2) And when religion does become involved in a conflict, it is part of a more complex set of factors which include political ideologies, economic resources, and cultural identities. The IEP’s Global Peace Index (GPI) goes further to propose that political corruption, inequalities, and regional instabilities are the real factors to violence rather than religious belief. Another finding of the IEP report was that religion could be a catalyst for ending conflict or making peaceful change. (2) As many already know, religious beliefs have fueled many human rights movements in the past 300 years (e.g., abolition and Civil Rights movements).

The societal power of religion is evident in the 2018 Pew Research Center study on religious restrictions, “Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016.” A central finding in the report was the increase of nationalism globally. With this rise of nationalism, government actors often use “anti-immigrant or anti-minority rhetoric to target religious groups in their countries.” (3) Around the world, Christians, Muslims, and Jews have been targets of national political parties. To add, governments (e.g., China and Iran) restrict religious freedom to prevent challenges to national hegemony over citizens. Thus religion, instead of being a force for discord, can be a force for good.

So teachers should put this false narrative of religious violence behind them, recognizing the societal good of religion. Ignoring religion at this point will not equip students to understand an essential motivator for a majority of the global community, or 5.7 out of 7.5 billion people, according to a recent Pew Research Center study.

(1) Kristen Farrington and Ian Jamison, “Chapter 10: Educating for Global Citizenship in a World Where Religion Matters,” in Haynes, Charles C., ed. Teaching about Religion in the Social Studies Classroom.

(2) Institute for Economics and Peace, “Five Key Questions Answered on the Link between Peace and Religion.”

(3) Katayoun Kishi, Primary Researcher, “Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016“, Pew Research Center, June 21, 2018.


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