I am a humanist agnostic, from a family of agnostics and atheists, and I think that students would benefit from more exposure to religious literature in the classroom. Let me explain.
I was brought up in a Unitarian-Universalist church. Unitarian-Universalism is a self-proclaimed liberal religion that is more focused on understanding the belief structures of other faiths rather than offering its own answers to every question. I’m not here to evangelize, but I think I gained a lot from my upbringing. In my religious education classes, we read plenty of chapters from the Bible, Old and New Testament. We also, however, read similar passages in the Quran, passages that relayed the same stories from a different viewpoint. One month, we were told to each research a different Eastern religion. Under the guidance of a Buddhist, we discussed the role that meditation can play in balancing the mind.
You may be thinking, Surely he’s not advocating to replicate these experiences in a classroom, is he? I absolutely am.
In my hometown, religious schools loom large. They’re the only private schools in the area, and there are no charter schools, so many parents who are otherwise indifferent to religion send their children to religious schools under the misconception that these schools, because they are private, will offer their children a better education. Unfortunately, there are several issues with these schools in my mind. They can’t be trusted to hold their kids to the same standards as public schools, they often expose their students to a more limited range of perspectives, and they reinforce the prevailing notion that Christianity is a fundamental, unchanging truth, rather than a theory of life that can be challenged.
Religion is a part of every child’s life in America, from the most religious Christian to the most religiously-indifferent agnostic or the most anti-religious atheist. Its fingerprints are all over our discussions of morals, laws, and our national story. It’s no accident that every American child is taught those famous words in the Declaration of Independence—“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Disbelieving in God doesn’t make Christianity’s influence vanish.
So, my solution? Stop running from religion in the classroom. Instead of ignoring the role that religion plays in children’s lives, embrace it. In my mind, educators can do two big things when they start teaching religious literature in classes, which I will elaborate on in the next two paragraphs. First, they can alter the power balance between Christians and religious minorities, which is especially disproportionate in very religious towns such as my hometown, so that religious minorities can be prevented from feeling marginalized. Second, they can expose their students to a wider variety of perspectives than they would otherwise see.
Power imbalances are everywhere in schools—between teachers and students, between white students and minority students, between rich students and poor students. Someone has the advantage, and someone doesn’t. In some cases, this is beneficial—I doubt most educators are fully ready to give up control of their classroom to their students. Religious power imbalances, however, are often ignored, and at the peril of the educator. Teaching children about other faiths does not mean that an educator is trying to convert their students or trying to dissuade them from believing in God. It simply means that the educator can act as the voice of the Muslim student or the Jewish student, a voice that too often goes unheard.
To widen a student’s perspective is arguably the primary goal of an English teacher, and teaching from religious texts accomplishes exact that. Most English teachers directly address issues of morality, race, and class in their classrooms—why should religion be any different? If English teachers avoided controversy and avoided introducing their students to new ideas, they’d have nothing interesting left to teach.
Furthermore, the teaching of religious texts can help develop the skills necessary for critical analysis. Students of virtually every religious background are not taught to think critically about religion. The Christian child may be told that doubting one’s faith is a natural, but private, part of belief, and that critically analyzing the Bible for flaws is not going to lead to a closer relationship with God. The atheist child, meanwhile, may be told that religion is silly, that analyzing such nonsense is a task unworthy of the child’s faculties for reason. Both of these opinions, I think, miss the point about analyzing religious texts.
Religious texts make good material for English class because of the rich analysis possible. Rather than asking whether a text is true or false (a question that an educator would never be expected to ask of any other work of literature), can’t educators ask questions applied to other works of fictions and non-fiction? Every verse of the Bible can be dissected for meaning—what is the message that the authors are attempting to convey? What does this passage reveal about the values of the authors? These are questions that apply to religious texts just as well as they apply to more conventional classroom literature. Even for students who believe that religious texts are the direct and literal word of their creator, doesn’t that make them even more worthy of scrutiny?
Even for teachers uncomfortable with treating the Bible as a piece of literature in a classroom, religion can still be approached. One of my personal favorite books, religious or not, is the Tao Te Ching, a holy test of the Chinese tradition of Daoism in which every line has double- and triple-meanings that become wonderful tests of logical reasoning. A text like this, which students are much less likely to have a personal connection with, can serve to teach students that religion is not a taboo subject, and that examining one another’s beliefs does not have to oppositional.
Rather than teaching that a text is right or wrong, the educator can simply teach that it, like all literature, is enjoyable. Addressing religion directly lowers the stakes for future conversations about religion, and it teaches students the value of frank discussion about serious issues.
My concern about the religious literacy of American kids has only been heightened by recent events. The President of the United States, only days ago, ordered federal agencies to bar entrance to the United States for people from certain countries, all of which happened to be deeply Muslim and deeply stereotyped by the American media. The President graciously made an exception, however, for Christians living in those countries. He is now signaling that he may soften this policy after widespread backlash, but I know that there are people in America who cheer over this action. When no one is taught to think critically about religion, they default to emotion, and it’s quite easy to hate people who disagree with you if you’re implicitly told by the schooling system that neither their religion nor yours is anything but objectively true or false, and it should not be analyzed as other ideologies are analyzed.
The word will be a better place if we all understand each other’s religious background a little more. Kids are going to be exposed to religion either way—why not teach them to engage with religious texts just as they would any other literature? By doing this, educators can help future generations avoid the grave mistakes of the past and present.