THE BLOG
10/16/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Understanding an Important Nuance in Teaching About Religion

Since we at the Hindu American Foundation began our Hinduism 101 teacher training last year, I have been faced with some tough questions on how to teach about religion in a culturally sensitive way.

I've been fortunate to lean on the expertise of legends such as Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute, who has literally written the book on how to teach about religion in a way that safeguards the church-state binary in classrooms. Other organizations, such as Tanenbaum and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation's Face to Faith, have also done a fantastic job at helping to articulate better teaching approaches when it comes to religion.

Still, teachers and administrators continue to express some hesitation when it comes to teaching about faith in a nuanced way. At a training I conducted this week in Raleigh for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction's Social Studies Leadership Institute, one teacher still had concerns about differentiating between what a religion teaches and what the practitioners actually do. When teaching about Hinduism, that has long been a problem, as textbooks and curriculum standards often fail to distinguish between its philosophy and social practices that aren't necessarily tied to the faith.

This is a universal problem for all faiths, because we too often (wrongly) presume that all practitioners of a religion are following their faith's tenets or philosophies. In reality, many people don't often practice what their religion preaches. We have to acknowledge that disconnect in the way we train educators to teach about religion.

Take this statement, for example: Hinduism teaches that all living beings are connected and that there is an inherent equality in all.

Philosophically, this is an accurate statement and captures what Hinduism idealizes. Now, what if I presented this? Hindus see all living beings as connected and see an inherent equality in all.

This would simply be untrue, not just because of the disconnect between philosophy and practice that's common in all faiths, but because even self-identifying Hindus have different interpretations of practice. This is why I always strongly urge teachers to avoid having parents (of any faith group) of their students come in and universalize a religion based purely on their experiences.

This nuance is important to understand because it focuses on teaching about religions as faith traditions without essentializing. While we can look at core values in each faith, it's also just as important to recognize that there is quite a bit of discourse, debate, and disagreement in how practitioners incorporate those values into their daily lives. For a middle or high school teacher focused on teaching about religion, there are ways to humanize diverse faith traditions without universalizing or homogenizing them. In teaching about Hinduism, for example, a teacher -- after careful vetting for accuracy and sensitivity -- can show a video or share an anecdote about how one person or one family practices the faith. A great example of this is a video produced by the "Have a Little Faith" web series on Rainn Wilson's "Soul Pancake" channel, which can be used to teach about Hinduism in classes, or the Hindu Students Association's "What is Yoga" video.

With more resources such these to help, teachers can adapt a truly pluralistic and holistic way of teaching about all faith traditions to increasingly diverse classrooms.

In the coming weeks and months, I'll share more approaches that will help empower teachers to teach about religion with cultural sensitivity and with respect to Constitutional boundaries.