What are the challenges to teaching for religious literacy?

Posted On 25 Feb 2022 by religionmatters

What are the challenges to teaching for religious literacy?

Dr. Tim Hall

There are four excellent reasons for the incorporation of religion in schools. These include civic and constitutional reasons for religious literacy. There is also an argument for religious literacy as part of a liberal studies education. And finally, I assert that religious literacy can be connected to global competence. 

  • With the reasons clear, why do teachers still hesitate to incorporate religion into the curriculum?
  • What keeps educators ignoring the place of religious literacy in the classroom?

According to Sarah B. Brooks of Millersville University in her article in Social Studies Research and Practice, teachers have some very specific concerns which I have condensed below (1)

Concern: 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.

Reality: A modest amount of professional development (PD) on teaching the content of religions can help with knowledge and skill base and increase confidence. Here is link to some very good online options.

Concern: Teachers are concerned about teaching without bias towards any religion or, in other words, remaining neutral.

Reality: Some teacher PD understanding and applying guidelines for teaching about religion can proactively address concerns of students and families.

So educator concerns can be alleviated with some pre-service education or in-service PD focused on the content of religions with PD on the guidelines to help bring that content into the classroom. 

The guidelines I am referencing have been agreed upon and published in several different national documents including:

Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in the Classroom

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In brief, the guidelines include the following:

  • Teachers should be academic, not devotional in their treatment of all religions. Objectivity is the key to this perspective.
  • Teachers should only teach for awareness of religions, not an acceptance of religion. There should be no proselytizing in the classroom regardless of personal religious perspective, which is private.
  • Teachers should only teach about religion, not practice religion. Students should not be participating in religious ceremonies.
  • Teachers should educate for student understanding of the diversity of religious views and not have an imposition of a particular viewpoint.
  • Teachers should not promote OR denigrate religions. Adverse events associated with a particular faith tradition do not characterize the entirety of the religious group. (e.g., the perpetrators of the horrors of 9/11 do not characterize the 1.8 billion other people who are Muslim.)
  • Teachers should only inform about beliefs, but they should not seek to make students believe. (2)

If an educator follows these guidelines, they are on the way to successfully incorporating religion into the classroom. 

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

(2) First Amendment Center, A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in Public Schools

About the Author

Tim Hall, Ph.D. is a 9-12 Social Studies Learning Guide with Vance Virtual Village Academy, a Senior Fellow of the Religious Freedom Institute, and founder of the website, Religion Matters. He is the author of several textbook supplements, curriculums, standards, and popular history texts, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World History and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Middle Ages. As an educator, Dr. Hall has taught AP World History, AP European History, AP Psychology, AP US History, and numerous other social studies courses. Dr. Hall has collaborated with the College of William and Mary in Virginia to develop curriculum materials for the teaching of the principle of separation of church and state in American history as an extension to a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar. Finally, he has recently participated in the Harvard Divinity School Religion and Public Life’s Religious Literacy Summer Institute for Educators.