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Why We Need to Start Teaching About Religions in School

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Religion ranks as one of the most divisive factors in the world today. Yet it has also brought billions of people together forging a sense of shared belief and unity of purpose across wide racial and geographical divides. The word itself comes from the Latin re-ligåre, which means "to bind back together." So how has the power which binds become a force which divides us?

The answer is complex, but if we had to boil it down to one word, that word would be ignorance -- a condition shared by believers and nonbelievers alike. America today is a nation of religious illiterates. Even many who attend worship services and profess to be devout may never have thought deeply about the tenets of their faith, still less wrestled with God, as the Jewish tradition exhorts its followers to do.

Leaving aside the question of God-wrestling for the moment, most religious believers have only a cursory knowledge of their own faith, and know next to nothing about the beliefs of other religions. This is something like learning geography by memorizing the names and capitals of all the states, but never finding out about other countries and continents which lie beyond the borders of the U.S.

As a Jew, I am often asked by Christians whether we "believe in Christ." The answer, of course, is that Judaism accepts the historical existence of Jesus, but does not regard him as the Messiah, for whom we're still waiting. Jews, for their part, are equally ignorant of the tenets of the Christian faith, and in many cases suffer from what one friend of mine calls "Jesus-phobia," a reluctance -- no doubt forged by centuries of Jewish oppression in Europe -- to speak or even think about the founder of Christianity.

If Jews and Christians know so little about one another's traditions, how much less do we grasp more exotic faiths like Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism? Yet it has never been more vital that we learn. This is important because religious passions are some of the most powerful forces -- for good and for ill -- at work in the world today. Whether we think the religious are wise or deluded, we owe it to ourselves to learn what makes them tick.

Conflict between religious communities and the rise of religious fundamentalisms worldwide has led to violence in the Middle East, the Balkans, Africa and South Asia in recent years, and it has fueled the culture wars here in the U.S., where religious conservatives blame nonbelievers for many of our current social ills. How do we lower the rhetoric level at home and abroad and defuse the mutual suspicions that fan the flames of conflict?

A good place to start is with religious literacy. What if we took seriously our religious pluralism, and made learning about the world's great faith traditions a mandatory part of American education? We study art, music and literature in school, because we recognize that these are key elements in human culture. Yet religion, which has had a massive influence on history, is left out.

I understand the difficulties of treating fairly the deeply held beliefs of millions of people in the school environment. Nevertheless, history, politics and government are also sensitive and controversial, but we find ways of teaching about them. There are excellent books available, like Professor Huston Smith's classic texts on world religions, which could serve as the basis for an objective examination of this topic.

My question is: What is the alternative? The alternative to learning about religions is remaining in ignorance, as we largely are today. And ignorance is a breeding ground for prejudice, stereotype and mutual suspicion.

Teaching about religions is not advocating for them any more than teaching about war advocates for war. And as for the objection that it would violate the separation between church and state, that's not true. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." It does not deny our young people the right to learn about this critical part of their human heritage.

A neutral and fair minded study of religion would include the alternatives to religion too -- atheism, free thought, philosophical inquiry -- all of the many approaches that humans have pursued. I know that some people will object. They will say that the responsibility for religious education lies with our religious institutions not the public schools. But what we are talking about here is not learning the exclusive truth-claims of this or that denomination. It is a broad-based exploration of how people have sought meaning and direction in life.

Granted, this enquiry will offend those who are convinced that only their way is valid -- fundamentalists will be the first to object. But real education has always offended. It challenges our notion that only our own views are correct. If teaching about religions broadens our minds and makes us more open to other ways of seeing things, it will have fulfilled its mission.