Teaching about Religion

By Doerr, Edd | The Humanist, November 1998 | Go to article overview
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Teaching about Religion

Doerr, Edd, The Humanist

It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such a study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

So wrote Justice Tom Clark in the Supreme Court's 1963 ruling in Abington v. Schempp, the case in which the Court ruled that mandated Bible reading in public schools is unconstitutional. It is hard to disagree with the view that public schools may and probably should do more to reduce ignorance about religion in a fair, balanced, objective, academic, neutral way. And it is easy to recognize that our schools currently teach very little about religion. The enormously difficult problem is what to do about it.

One approach is presented by Warren A. Nord and Charles C. Haynes in their new book, Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum. Given the prestige and resources of its publishers (the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development in Alexandria, Virginia, and the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tennessee), the book is sure to have an impact. And in all fairness, I must acknowledge that the Nord-Haynes book contains a great deal of useful material, cautions against indoctrination, and makes a case for expanding teaching about religion in public schools. Having said that, however, and before commenting on what Nord and Haynes have written, I must throw in some background on the two authors.

Warren Nord is the author of a 1995 book, Religion and American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma, which claims that public schools are "hostile to religion" and promote "the religion of secular humanism; urges what borders on a saturation of public schools with material about religion; hardly notes the dark side of religion; ignores the formidable difficulties of including religion in public school curricula; and presents a rationale for tax support of nonpublic schools through vouchers.

Charles Haynes is one of the main authors of the Williamsburg Charter curriculum for grades five, eight, and eleven, Living with Our Deepest Differences: Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society, which I severely criticized in this column several years ago as being clogged with irrelevant material, errors, and serious omissions. I concluded that the curriculum was not suitable for use in public schools.

Haynes has written elsewhere that "policy decisions" about public education should be "made only after appropriate involvement of those affected" and that broad support for policy decisions requires that "all stakeholders must be fully represented in the discussion." Yet, when Haynes was involved several years ago in developing consensus position statements on religious issues in public education (which, I must add, turned out to be pretty good), he told me, in response to my query, that he did not want broad input and specifically did not want involvement by the Unitarian Universalist Association, the American Humanist Association, or Americans for Religious Liberty.

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