Should Religion Be Taught in School?

by Safiyyah Ally

Should religion be taught in school? Yes. Yes, and yes again.

You’re probably thinking, religion doesn’t belong in the classroom. I live in a secular society. I don’t want someone preaching to my child, or worse, converting them to a different faith!

So let me explain!

Canadian classrooms are getting more and diverse. There are more religious traditions represented than ever before. There are also more students who don’t identify with any religion at all. We’re becoming more aware of indigenous spiritualities that have been suppressed. While all of this is taking place, religious literacy is at an all-time low. What does that mean? Essentially that people don’t know much about religion.

Let me share with you a personal example. I was one of only three Muslim students at high school, and the guy sitting beside me in calculus thought I was a nun. I got questions about whether I wear my headscarf to sleep.

It’s not just me though. After 9/11, people targeted Sikhs wearing turbans, because hello! They’re as strange-looking as Muslims. So they must be one and the same! Many imams were forced to apologize for violence committed by terrorists because people didn’t realize that the Muslims all around them – their Muslim friends and neighbours and colleagues -- weren’t responsible for what extremists do.

To complicate matters, even within religions, there’s a great deal of confusion. People divide themselves into groups and hate each other without really knowing what’s so bad about the other group. Think about Shiite and Sunni Muslims and the suspicion and hostility that exists between them in some parts of the world. Lack of awareness and understanding can create prejudice, hate, marginalization, sometimes even violence.

Whether religion is part of the curriculum or not, people learn things about religion. And they learn about it right in the classroom. Because school doesn’t exist in a bubble. Schools are microcosms of the society in which they exist.

A student will watch something on the news or see something in a movie and make jokes about it in the classroom. Ask Muslim kids how many of them get called raghead or Osama or even flat out terrorist and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The problem is that these conversations are uninformed. And students don’t have the critical skills to be able to tell how true they are. And teachers are not immune. If they don’t make a real effort to develop religious literacy, they too unintentionally educate students about religion in ways that are uninformed and irresponsible.

Now There’s a difference between learning about religion for the purpose of understanding and connecting, and learning for the purpose of worship and devotion. Schools should teach, not preach religion.

I’m calling for an education that allows students to develop a rich understanding of the various religious traditions. They should be able to notice the similarities and differences between religious traditions. What does God look like in every religion? Is God the same?

What values are shared among religions? Which ones are distinct? Why does it seem as if every religion has some variation on the Golden Rule?

They should be able to recognize eastern religions and indigenous spirituality on their own, without using Christianity as a familiar reference point. Diwali, for example, shouldn’t be thought of as the Hindu version of Christmas, but should be understood and appreciated as a festival in its own right.

Students should recognize that there is a diversity of ideas and practices within these traditions. They should learn that there are vast differences in the worldviews of one person or the other – even if they share the same faith.

For example, they should know that not all Muslim women look alike: some Muslim women may wear the hijab. Others may not. And clothing will look different depending on where they come from and their sense of style.

Students should also know that religious traditions aren’t static; they evolve. They change over time and across space. How Islam is practiced here in Canada is different than how it is practiced in Turkey, for instance. And how it’s practiced right now is different than in Ottoman times.

And students should come to understand that religion has played and continues to play a huge and important role in people’s lives. Religion has had a profound effect on art, music, literature, history and science. It has shaped our thinking and permeated our culture. Religion affects people’s relationship with the environment. It impacts economic systems. It motivates people to do good or commit evil. They need to know about religion because it affects the world.

You may be thinking, this is pretty deep stuff. Even adults don’t know this stuff. Why do we want to teach it to kids? Well, because we need more sophisticated public discourse about religion, and what better place to start than at school?

We can of course tailor the information we’re sharing depending on age. But in the end, we can’t shield children from the difficult issues of our time. Rather, we can provide them with a safe space to think critically and make sense of the world. That will equip them with the tools they need to transform themselves and the society around them.

For smaller, minority religions, ones that don’t get much attention, I can assure you that incorporating religion in public schools is a game changer. It can help students feel included and understood. When I was in high school, Eid-ul-Adha, an Islamic holiday, fell on a school day. It was also the day that a chemistry test was scheduled. I approached my teacher and asked if I could make up the test at a later date. He refused outright. I had to go to the vice principal to get help. That very teacher then started ranting in class the next day about students getting Christmas as vacation but wanting their religious holidays recognized by the school as well. If he had only realized that the education system is based on Christian and specifically Protestant modeling, he would have seen more clearly the challenges minorities face rather than thinking that they were taking advantage of the system. Students from non-Christian religions have to advocate for themselves to celebrate their religious holidays; Christians have it entrenched in the school calendar. If we don’t take the time to collectively learn about minority religions, we risk further marginalizing students belonging to these traditions. We know that religiously motivated hate crimes are not going away, not just in Canada but around the world. We need to do more collectively to engage and understand difference.

Religion can be included in the school curriculum in a number of ways. It can be incorporated into a discussion of literature or a study of history or an exploration of art. There may be times when including religion leads to discussion of difficult and contentious issues, but…isn’t that the case with anything important? We don’t shy away from debates about climate change and racism and vaccines because they’re messy. Why should we be afraid of talking about religion?

Watch the video here.

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