Religion and Character Education

By Lickona, Thomas | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Religion and Character Education


Lickona, Thomas, Phi Delta Kappan


There is an emerging consensus that the exclusion of religion from the public school curriculum is neither intellectually honest nor in the public interest, Mr. Lickona says, and he suggests seven ways whereby educators can constitutionally incorporate religion into character education.

ONE NIGHT, at the end of my graduate course on character education, a student stayed to talk. He said he lifted weights competitively but was finding it increasingly difficult to compete because so many people in the sport use steroids. "I don't do steroids, and I never will," he said, "but just about everybody else does, and they get away with it."

I asked him how athletes can continue to use steroids when everything you read says that steroids can make you sterile, cause cancer, and do other terrible things to your body. He replied, "People know all that, but they don't care." He said that, the week before, the professor in one of his physical education courses had shown a videotape that reported the results of a survey of amateur weight lifters. The survey posed this question: "If you could take a drug that would guarantee you'd win every competition for five years, but at the end of five years the drug would be certain to kill you, would you take that drug?" A majority of the weight lifters said yes.1

If we ask ourselves why a significant number of young people in our society would trade their very lives for five years of drug-dependent success, we must answer: they are spiritually adrift. They lack an ennobling vision of human dignity, human destiny, and the ultimate meaning of life. As one mother said upon hearing the results of that survey, "Those young men don't know why they're here."

Before their character is formed by the worst aspects of our culture, young people should be helped to reflect on life's largest questions. One can argue that, without religion's call to the transcendent, most of us are more tempted, as the weight lifters were, to make gods of other things: money, pleasure, power, or success at any price.

The condition of our democracy is also profoundly affected by religion, as recent public discourse has reminded us. Last year, the Council on Civil Society issued A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths, identifying 12 "seedbeds of civic virtue" that are society's foundational sources of competence, character, and citizenship. One of these crucial seedbeds, the report says, is "faith communities and religious institutions." A Call to Civil Society notes that a great majority of Americans consider religion to be of great importance in their lives. During any given week, U.S. church and synagogue attendance is estimated to be 13 times the total attendance at all U.S. sporting events. Voluntary financial contributions to houses of worship exceed total ticket revenues from professional sports by a factor of 14 to 1. Faith communities in the U.S. also form the spiritual backbone of our nation's sizable philanthropic and charitable sector.

"If a central task of every generation is moral transmission," the report continues, religion historically has probably been the primary force that transmits from one generation to another the moral understandings that are essential to liberal democratic institutions. Religion is especially suited to this task because it focuses our minds and our hearts on obligations to each other that arise out of our shared createdness. By elevating our sights toward others and toward ultimate concerns, religious institutions help turn us away from self-centeredness, or what Tocqueville terms "egotism," democracy's most dangerous temptation.2

Research on Religion and Youths

Is there research to confirm the assertion that religion serves personal fulfillment and the common good? In fact, there is a fair amount of empirical evidence that points to the contribution that religion makes to healthy human development and in particular to the development of the young. …

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