By Vic Tanner
In his excellent book, Breaking the Spell, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett made the modest proposal that classes on world religion should be a requirement in all public and private schools as well as home schooling. One community is doing just that. The Modesto, California school district has made a world religion course a requirement for high school graduation in the hopes that it might be a model of how to teach about religion in schools for the rest of the country.
The course's goal is to teach the customs and practices of the world, including the major world religions, namely Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in an objective and unbiased manner. The instructors of the class went to extraordinary lengths to ensure no particular religion was favored, going as far as to count the number of pages dedicated to each religion. Are they forging a brave new curriculum for public schools? Or is the introduction of religious instruction in public schools a potential for disaster?
Can an unbiased and detached method of teaching, such as is being modeled in Modesto, be expected to continue once a class like this is released to the wild? Even with the best of intentions, a class like this is prime for abuse. Other attempts to institute religion courses in public schools have often met with much public criticism, largely because of a major misunderstanding by the school administration as to what ‘religion' actually is. They were not so much attempts to teach "religion", as they were attempts to teach a specific religion - Christianity - usually in the form of a Bible study.
Even if the pilot study in Modesto is done correctly, this does not mean that similar programs will be carried out responsibly in other school districts. At some point, some teacher will be tempted to teach some doctrine as truth. Or others as false. Could a fundamentalist Christian teacher be expected to teach about Islam in an unbiased manner or mention admirable traits of Atheism? Would Atheism even be mentioned in such a class?
Even with all the potential abuses, a class such as this could still be greatly beneficial. The United States is one of the most religious countries on earth. It is also one of the most ignorant about religion, even its own. When I discover on a day to day basis how many people don't understand the basic tenets of their own religion, or fail to grasp the benefits of church/state separation, I tend to believe that a class like this may not only be a good idea, but may, in fact, be a necessity for our country to continue. No one, after all, can make an informed choice, without information, and many children, especially home schooled children, never come in contact with differing viewpoints on religion. Perhaps, even if taught improperly, the class could do some good. Who knows? It could have the unintended consequence of educating the educators.
The direst potential consequence that I see of a class like this being added to public schools would be the slippery slope that may result. It may be used by a more unscrupulous and proselytizing mindset to try to open the door for other types of religious instruction in public schools - a sort of wedge effort. Once a course on religion is being taught, it may be harder to argue why other classes on religion do not meet the criteria of a public school room. We must remember: other parts of the country are not as progressive in their agenda as southern California. Can we allow religious instruction in public school, but put the proper limits on what is taught and how? If they can have a class in world religion, why can't we have a class on Christianity?
This would, of course, be a plain violation of the separation of church and state. A class such as this cannot promote one religion over another or religion over secularism. But this is not commonly understood, even with solid judicial judgments. The 1963 US Supreme Court case of Abington School Dist. v. Schempp barred Bible recitations in the class room but said "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities" if these qualities are "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education." This seems pretty plain to us, but there are groups out there that are just waiting to push the subject. A group known as the Bible Literacy Project spent many years and millions of dollars writing a proposed text book, The Bible and Its Influence. They are attempting to get the book endorsed and used in schools to teach the Christian Bible, as if adding the phrase "and its influence" suddenly transforms it into a sociology textbook. This book has already been used in two schools in the US. If abuses of the curriculum do occur once the gate is open, could we close it again?
It is a good thing to know about religion. After all, you can't defend yourself against things you know nothing about. There is an old saying: if you want to know about religion, ask an atheist.