Indoctrination vs Education: A Debate on Religion Taught in Schools

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Religion being taught in schools has been regarded as a violation of church and state since the beginning of the 20th century, but have we been avoiding a subject that is needed in public school just as much as any other humanity? I am not talking about indoctrinating children; I am taking about learning the cultural systems of varied religious groups in order to better understand the people within America, and the world. But can religion be taught objectively, as Abington Township v. Schempp endorses, or will teachers use this subject to oppress social groups that have opposing beliefs?

Why should we teach religion in the first place? America has been known as a religious refuge and thus is well-rounded when it comes to diversity but are Americans aware of their fellow citizens cultural beliefs? Research has shown that the majority of Americans are religiously illiterate. This is alarming considering how important religion is to foreign policy in the United States. Religion is a key factor to understanding each other and understanding leads to a more tolerant population which is in everyone’s best interest. Joseph Laycock, a graduate from Harvard Divinity School, believes it is vital to teach religion in schools. Laylock points out in his article that although Abington Township v. Schempp had banned Bible readings in public school Justice Clark stated that one’s education is not complete without the study of comparative religion.

“Religious literacy is essential for the smooth functioning of a pluralistic democracy in a shrinking world. The issue is not only understanding the world “out there,” beyond American shores, but also understanding our own society, which is increasingly religiously diverse.” Mark A. Chancey

Many people are wary of teaching religion in school, and believe that the First Amendment prohibits the inclusion of religion in any way. Because of how the Supreme Court has ruled in the past on cases relating to religion and public education, state school officials do not want to face the challenge of integrating religious history and practice into the course work and would rather exclude it then risk facing a costly lawsuit. So how do you effectively incorporate religious courses without crossing the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion? Mark A. Chancey who conducted a survey of Texas Bible classes in public schools for the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund found that many schools achieved this blend of religion and school by:

  • Relying on resources informed by a broad range of biblical scholarship, not just the scholars of one particular religious community.
  • Informing students about the unique features of the Bibles of different traditions (Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox).
  • Being intentional in exposing students to biblical translations associated with different religious traditions.
  • Being sensitive to the different ways various religious communities have interpreted particular passages and did not present one tradition’s interpretation as normative.
  • Recognizing the importance of biblical texts as ancient historical sources without lapsing into a tone of assumed historicity.
  • Discussing the Bible’s moral and theological claims without presenting them as authoritative for the students.
  • Recognizing that the Bible is not a science textbook.
  • Treating Judaism as a religion in its own right and not merely as the foil or background for Christianity.

Creating a curriculum that focusses on these points will achieve the goal of creating an electorate that is religiously literate without crossing the court’s interpretation of separation of church and state.

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Still though people are opponents to teaching religion in schools. In the past groups used the image of Christ as a white man to advance their social and political agenda. Many people fear that if religion becomes a part the public school’s curriculum that I teachers will use it in the same way. Others believe it will infringe on a parents right to guide the religious practices and views of their child. And the fear of legal intervention because of crossing a line drawn by the court system.

These fears are all valid but ultimately should not be of great concern. A large portion of the United States concerns itself with equality and would not be silent if such an event happened. Teaching religious curriculum in school is not a way to “indoctrinate” but to “educate” and would not overstep into the parents right to rear its child in a certain manner. Finally as long as schools stay within the guidelines drawn by Chancey they should have no problem with creating a religion class as a part of their required courses.

Learning religion in public schools is as necessary as history in understanding the world, past and present events, and each other. To ignore it because the fear of offending someone is an injustice to the students in America that are already well behind in religious literacy. Religious education must include information about all the world’s religions, and about atheism as well and should not avoid mentioning problems in religious beliefs in order to properly and rightfully inform students.  Children benefit from seeing all sides of an argument.

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