Putting religion in its global context (2): three premises for teaching religion in high school

It’s been a few weeks since my first post (see ‘What’s wrong with “World Religion”?’) on the topic of rethinking and reshaping my class formerly known as ‘World Religion’, which we’re rebranding as ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’ve completed a couple of lessons, so I’m ready to resume blogging on the topic. The first lesson—1.1, Why Study Religion in High School?—is built around AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. Now, I teach at a private Episcopal school, so I don’t have to worry about violating the First Amendment, or tearing down the wall that separates ‘church and state’, but I do teach a diverse body of students who are associated with a variety of religious traditions. Therefore, I think the same rationale for trying to teach about religion rather that training in religion applies.

AAR promotes three premises for why we should teach religion to high schoolers:

  1. There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the U.S.
  2. One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.
  3. It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary schools.

I’ll begin by asking students to explain what they think these three premises mean. Then, I’ll go premise-by-premise in order to better explain them. To teach the first premise, I’ll be walking students through a series of absolute statements—’Christians believe…Judaism teaches…Buddhists practice…’—and I’ll push students to think critically about these statements in order to help them recognize that the religion is far more complicated than most people recognize and that it needs to be rethought, as a conceptual category, in order to avoid dangerous oversimplifications.

To teach the second premise, I’ll talk to my students about (1) how Sikhs have been mistreated in American; (2) how Islamaphobia fuels this mistreatment; and (3) how Islamaphobia itself is a problem that needs to be addressed (in other words, mistreatment of Sikhs isn’t wrong just because they’re mistaken for Muslims but because Islamaphobia is a dehumanizing and misleading ideology that doesn’t represent Islam and doesn’t correctly address how to respond to difference). I’ll make sure to give students a basic introduction to Sikhism as well (no reason to show them how many Americans misunderstand Sikhism only to leave them without any understanding) using Religion for Breakfast’s helpful video:

To teach the third premise, I’ll lead them through a discussion on what makes our class different from a ‘devotional’ approach to studying religion. Then I’ll give them several reasons for studying religion even if the class isn’t teaching them what to believe religiously.

Here’s a PDF draft of this first lesson for those who are interested:

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