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How to Teach About Religion Without Being an Expert

This week we explore the critical topic of teaching about religion. Today, Mark E. Fowler, managing director of programs at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, argues that you don't need to be an expert to teach about religion. Come back Wednesday to read a post by a world religions teacher featuring a plethora of additional resources to help you get started. 

And mark your calendar for this Thursday, August 13 at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific, when you will have a special opportunity to chat with authors of both posts during #GlobalEdChat on Twitter. (Just type in #GlobalEdChat to see the conversation and participate.) They will be answering all your questions on teaching about religion!

by guest blogger Mark E. Fowler

Have you ever had to teach a subject you weren't very familiar with? Outside of class, you were reading the textbook just ahead of your students, asking other teachers and community members for help and looking for digestible summaries of topics when trying to prepare. During the trainings and webinars that Tanenbaum provides, it's clear that many participant teachers feel this way about teaching the major world religions. They often ask for more information and have said that their lack of knowledge about different religions prevents them from broaching the subject at all.

Teaching about religion may sound difficult if you do not have a background in religious studies or a personal affiliation. But Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance believe that educators are completely capable of addressing religious diversity in a respectful, informed way—expert or not!  What's more, teaching about religious and nonreligious identities helps students develop religious literacy—a vital skill for the twenty-first century.

Developing religious literacy includes a basic understanding of the histories, central texts, beliefs, practices, and contemporary manifestations of several of the world's religious traditions, as they arose out of and continue to shape particular social, historical, and cultural contexts. This literacy equips our students with the ability to get along and work with a diversity of identities.

According to Tanenbaum's education consultant, Kim Keiserman, "As teachers, we have to become accustomed to learning new things along with our students. We may know some things in our subject area very well, and other areas are less familiar to us." When teaching about diverse beliefs, which serve as important personal identity markers for billions of people, it is not possible to know the practices and traditions of every person. The World Religions Fact Sheet gives teachers a general overview of the world's major religions, but when it comes to teaching about religious diversity, the method of presenting information may be equally as important as your personal mastery of the topic, maybe even more so. Fact sheets like this one show the vast diversity and scale of the major world religions, which may seem intimidating at first. As with all subjects, your knowledge and comfort with teaching about religion can grow over time.

We emphasize that teachers don't have to be "experts" as long as they follow good practices:

  • Ensure a safe, inclusive classroom environment when discussing religious differences by following the Seven Principles for Inclusive Education.
  • Communicate with parents about the learning objectives, explaining that their children will be learning about religious differences, not being indoctrinated into different religions.
  • Allow students to explore their own identities, recognizing that the more they understand themselves, the more they can understand others.
  • Learn alongside your students with up-close exposure to diverse traditions. Expose them to the "lived religion" of real people by allowing them to read primary sources and personal stories, interact with guest speakers, interview community members, and take field trips to houses of worship.
  • Explore the commonalities among different belief systems, as well as the differences. Tanenbaum's Shared Visions project reminds us that the world's religions share many core values. Read shared visions on the value of education here.
  • Examine your assumptions about religion. The American Academy of Religions suggests that teachers "examine what assumptions they harbor about religion generally and religious traditions in particular." Teachers who are aware of their own biases will be better able to overcome them and present facts and ideas in an objective manner.

In a previous blog post, we encouraged teachers to coach students to "be honest about the limits of our understanding....While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives." This advice is relevant for teachers as well. As you discuss religious traditions in the classroom, be wary of the "burden of being a spokesperson"—the assumption that any one person's perspective represents the experiences or beliefs of an entire group. Just as we may not know all of the answers to questions about a particular faith, no one person can be expected to speak as the authority on his or her faith tradition.

Navigating the teaching of world religions can be hard for teachers who are used to having all the right answers about a particular topic. However, the study of religious diversity provides an excellent opportunity to model attitudes of respectful curiosity to students. If you don't assume you already know everything about a group of people, then you will be less likely to form stereotypes or hurtful generalizations. With this attitude in mind, students can follow suit.

Tanenbaum would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of Rachel Sumption to this blog post. This post was originally published as part of a webinar series delivered jointly by Tanenbaum  and Teaching Tolerance.

Follow TanenbaumAsia Society, and Heather on Twitter.

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