What are the Barriers to Religious Literacy in K-12 education?

Posted On 10 Dec 2020 by religionmatters

Tim Hall, Ph.D.

In previous blogs, I detailed ways that educators could teach about religious literacy in the classroom where appropriate following a sound framework. This six-point framework comes from the Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the U.S. published by the American Academy of Religion and the Religious Freedom Center of The Freedom Forum Institute. With this framework, teachers can integrate the study of religion into the classroom while avoiding generalizations and oversimplification. Finally, I provided four excellent reasons for the incorporation of religion in schools, including civic, constitutional, educational, and global reasons.

With all of the tough questions answered, why do teachers still hesitate to incorporate religion into the curriculum where appropriate and needed? What keeps educators ignoring the place of religion in the classroom?

With religion in the classroom, educators have made certain assumptions or expressed concerns that have slowed its entry into the 21st century globally connected classroom. These assumptions come Warren Nord‘s seminal text, Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma. And from my experience as an educator, these assumptions are valid.

Assumption 1: Sacred and secular (meaning not religious) can be divided readily, and most of the world can be understood in purely secular terms.

Response: The separation of secular and sacred is still very contested. This is evident in the many political perspectives that are based on religious grounds. Historically, most religions connect secular and sacred with everyday life. So this assumption is not accurate.

Assumption 2: Secular ways of knowledge are neutral; as a result, secular education is unbiased.

Response: The assumptions, methods, and conclusions of some secular scholarship since the Enlightenment (17th & 18th c.) have not been neutral to religion but explicitly hostile to it. This theme varies across religions, but the generalization holds. One quick example can be taken from a quote by Voltaire (1694-1778), who epitomizes the spirit of the Enlightenment and secularity who said, “Religion began when the first scoundrel met the first fool.”

Assumption 3: Reason and logic are associated with secular ways of thinking. Religion is based on irrational ways of thinking or as Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) once wrote by the “virtue of the absurd.”

Response: Indeed, religion sometimes relies on faith. But it has very often used reason and scholarship. Also, modern science cannot claim to be objective, only ruled by disinterested reason. Like religion, it can reflect ideology, power, relationships, and faith, becoming as doctrinal as religion.

To add to these assumptions, teachers have specific concerns which I have condensed from an excellent article in Social Studies Research and Practice by Sarah B. Brooks, Millersville University. Again, with my experience as an educator, I can confirm these concerns. (1)

Concern 1: Teachers are concerned about insufficient knowledge of the religious spectrum. Many educators struggle to identify basic religious facts, such as critical leaders, sacred texts, or events. This lack of content knowledge includes their religious affiliation.

Response: Just a modest amount of Professional Development (PD) on teaching the content of religions can help with knowledge and skill base.

Concern 2: Teachers are concerned about teaching without bias towards any religion.

Response: Some teacher PD focused on the six-point framework of teaching about religion helps to proactively address concerns of students and families on the legality and appropriateness of education about religion.

Concern 3: Teachers are concerned about offending students or families who adhere to a religion.

Response: Again, PD applying the six-point framework goes a long way in these preventable offensives.

So to conclude, teachers need to be aware that the assumptions of the past about religion are not correct. Also, 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.

(1) Sarah Brooks, “Secondary teacher candidates’ experiences teaching about religion within a history curriculum

Selected source: Warren Nord, Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma.


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