Religion and education. At the dawn of the second millennium,
throughout much of the world the two not only had an untroubled
coexistence, but were more or less synonymous.
Even in countries where state-run schools existed, the bulk of
the instruction was still done by clerics. That a well-rounded
education included religious instruction was simply a given in most
But in the 19th century, a major shift occurred as the torch was
passed from church to state and the notion of universal public
education took hold.
In some places, the transition did not create much of a rift. In
Japan, for instance, public school children still routinely say
Buddhist prayers as grace before a school snack, and the government
helps to fund various religious schools. But elsewhere, observers
say, a failure to comfortably accommodate religious beliefs in
public schools could lead to a rending of the social fabric.
The relationship between religious beliefs and what is taught in
schools has often been tense in the Muslim world, including the
extreme case of the Taliban, the ruling group in Afghanistan that
has been reluctant to educate girls and women. In European countries
with official state religions, conflicts were initially less
frequent. But today, as populations diversify, more students protest
official religion classes.
In the United States, relations between religion and public
schools are particularly strained. The situation here bears close
watching, say observers, because the need to educate a heterogeneous
society will eventually confront most governments.
"Are we going to find a way to have a public school system in
this country?" That's the question that most troubles James Fraser,
dean of the school of education at Northeastern University in Boston
and author of "Between Church and State: Religion and Public
Education in a Multicultural America." Unless there is a better
relationship between religion and public education, he says, the
future of the school system "is not a given."
Professor Fraser is concerned that in many classrooms, a broad
array of religious beliefs are not treated with respect. "Every time
Islam is put down in a public school classroom and an Islamic child
is made to feel uncomfortable, there's pressure to form a separate
school," he says. "Every time creationism is ridiculed and a
fundamentalist Christian child is made to feel uncomfortable,
there's pressure to form a separate school. Every act of disrespect
adds fuel to the fire."
Those who doubt that a splintering could take place have only to
consider the rapid growth of the Catholic school system in this
country in the 1800s, and the ever more-diverse mix that American
society is becoming, Fraser adds.
The notion that there was ever a time in the history of the
United States when religion and education dwelt together peaceably
is a myth, say those who monitor the subject. "We've never done it
right," says Barry Lynn, executive director of the Washington-based
Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "There was no
golden age where public schools and religion achieved a perfect
Quarrels over the subject began with the first Europeans to
settle in America. While most agreed they wanted "the church" to
take charge of instruction for children, which church was highly