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Six Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

Today, Benjamin Pietro Marcus, Research Fellow with the Religious Freedom Center, part of the Newseum Institute, shares strategies for including religion in your classroom.

By guest blogger Benjamin Pietro Marcus

Teachers committed to global education increasingly understand the urgency of teaching about religion in the context of contemporary social and political life. Yet not everyone agrees—despite books and reports that explain why learning about religion is both constitutional and critically important for responsible citizenship in a diverse nation. By reminding skeptics that the world has seen an increase in social hostilities related to religion since the atrocities of September 11—including 500 percent more hate crimes against Muslims per year in the US—perhaps they will recognize that religious literacy education is a key tool for preventing and reducing religion-related violence.

Instead of repeating the why of religious literacy education, this article provides suggestions for the how. After a brief review of the best existing guidelines for teaching about religion, we will explore a lesser-known, valuable framework for teaching about religious identity.

Teaching about Religion
In 2010 the American Academy of Religion (AAR) published Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States. This excellent resource outlines three premises about religion, listed below along with their corresponding guiding questions and sample lessons. For additional resources visit the Pluralism Project and the Religious Literacy Project websites.

1. "Religions are internally diverse, not homogeneous."
People with the same religious affiliation often hold different beliefs and behave in different ways. Teachers should encourage students to compare and contrast the ways people within a specific religious tradition (e.g., Christianity)—and even within a different branch (e.g., Protestantism) or denomination (e.g., Baptist)—describe their beliefs and practices.

Some guiding questions for students might be:

  • Is a specific religious tradition the same for all people in all places?
  • What are the differences observed among people who claim the same religious affiliation?

Lesson Idea: In a unit about British colonialism, a 9th grade history teacher asks students to research the history of the word "Hinduism." Teachers provide primary and secondary sources that describe Hindu beliefs and practices during the colonial period. Students write argumentative essays about whether it is more appropriate to speak of a single Hinduism or of multiple Hindu traditions.

2. "Religions are dynamic and changing, not static and fixed."
The beliefs and behaviors that characterize a religious community change over time. Teachers should encourage students to consider how and why the beliefs and practices of a religious tradition (e.g., Judaism) and its sub-communities (e.g., Reconstructionism) might change as people who practice that religious tradition wrestle with external forces and events (e.g., the Holocaust).

Guiding Questions:

  • How has a specific religious tradition changed over time?
  • In what ways does a religious tradition remain the same?

Lesson Idea: In a unit about contemporary global affairs, an 8th grade social studies teacher asks students to research major leaders—political, religious, business, etc.—and compare them with their predecessors. The teacher wants students to understand how leaders and major institutions adapt in a changing world. As an example, the whole class reads about the leadership styles of the current Dalai Lama and the 13th Dalai Lama, including their interpretations of Buddhism and relationships to the Tibetan Buddhist community. Pairs of students write a list of similarities and differences between the two. Students share with the class in pairs.

3. "Religions are embedded in cultures, not isolated from them. Religions influence and are influenced by culture."
Religious communities do not exist in a vacuum. Members of religious communities interpret and reinterpret their religious traditions as they respond to changing social, economic, political, and other conditions. Religious communities or individuals also play a role in shaping culture. Teachers should encourage students to examine how religious communities react to and influence the world around them.

Guiding Questions:

  • In what ways is a religious tradition affected by culture, politics, economics, etc.?
  • In what ways does a religious tradition affect culture in a specific time and place?

Lesson Idea: In an 11th grade social studies unit about globalization, a teacher divides students into groups to research Muslim communities in contemporary Nigeria, Indonesia, Iraq, France, and the United States. In a café conversation format, students representing different countries discuss how local cultural norms affect interpretations of what it means to be Muslim and how dominant interpretations of Islam affect culture and politics. 

Teaching about Religious Identity
sethbrady photo.jpgIf the AAR Guidelines name three facts about religion, the 3B Framework explains those facts by analyzing how people experience religion in their own lives. According to the 3B Framework—a synthesis of the research of numerous scholars including Jonathan Haidt, Vassilis Saroglou, and myself—people construct their religious identities in different ways based on how much they value belief, behavior, and experiences of belonging. Teachers should help students investigate not only what religious communities and individuals believe but also how they act (behaviors) and create community (belonging). Students should consider why a religious community or individual prioritizes believing a certain set of ideas, behaving in certain ways, or devoting oneself to a certain community. Below are guiding questions and lesson ideas for investigating religious identity in the classroom.

1. Belief
Sacred beliefs—including those about the ultimate nature of deities or the universe—can provide reasons for behaving a certain way or for joining a religious community. Students should learn how specific theologies, doctrines, and scriptures (e.g., Qur'an) can influence behaviors (e.g., daily prayer) and a sense of belonging to a specific community (e.g., Muslims). Teachers should remind students that not all members of a community hold the same beliefs, and the ways religious communities interpret those beliefs change over time. 

Guiding Questions:

  • What theologies, doctrines, sacred narratives, social and ethical values, and holy texts do individuals and institutions refer to when speaking about their beliefs?
  • How do religious beliefs influence behaviors and create communities of belonging?

Example: In a longer unit about religion in the United States, a 12th grade social studies teacher asks students to analyze two sources—a primary text written by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, which says that only men can act as priests, and a recent poll which shows that a majority of American Catholics support the ordination of women. Students individually describe how the primary text justifies reserving the priesthood for men. Then they develop hypotheses about why a majority of American Catholics disagree with the Church on this issue yet continue to claim affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church. Students discuss their hypotheses in pairs before sharing with the class.

2. Behavior
For some religious individuals, acting a certain way—including through rites, rituals, holidays, or daily devotional practices—creates belief and fosters a sense of community. In other words, a religious (e.g., Buddhist) individual may participate in certain actions (e.g., seated meditation), and through that activity, she may come to believe in a certain set of ideas (e.g., impermanence) and create a community with others who engage in the same practices (e.g., Zen Buddhists). Students should note how this behavior-centric way of creating a religious identity differs from a belief-centric mode of religious identity formation.

Guiding Questions:

  • What are important rites, rituals, and practices associated with daily life and major life milestones that shape religious behavior?  
  • How do behaviors create beliefs and a sense of belonging to a community?

Example: As part of a 7th grade social studies unit about adolescence in America, a teacher asks groups of students to examine religious rites and rituals to mark the end of childhood. One group may investigate Jewish rites including the celebration of the bar or bat mitzvah in the 2000s and in the 1950s. Students may use first-person accounts, articles, or even video documentaries. After a close reading (or viewing) of each source, groups analyze the meaning behind the ceremony, how participation might affect belief or a sense of belonging to a certain community, and why the format of the ceremony may vary depending on year, gender, or community (i.e., Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Humanist).

3. Belonging   
Religious, racial, ethnic, familial, gender, sexual, and other identities affect the lived experiences of religious individuals and communities. It is critical to remember that the shared experiences of the communities with which we associate can affect our religious beliefs and behavior. Students should explore how the mix of a certain set of community markers (e.g., Hindu, South Asian, female, millennial, American) can affect the beliefs and behaviors of religious individuals.

Guiding Questions:

  • How do religious groups or sub-groups create a sense of community? What is the role of "non-religious" or cultural factors in the lived experiences of religious communities?
  • How does belonging to a specific community affect the beliefs that constitute a worldview or the behaviors that are prescribed or proscribed?

Example: As part of a unit about the civil rights era in a 10th grade history class, students read excerpts from sermons and other religious texts written by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Dr. James Cone, and Rev. Dr. Bob Jones, Sr. The teacher facilitates a Socratic seminar to discuss the relationship between belief about God, prescribed behavior vis-à-vis civil rights activism, and race in the United States in the 1960s. The teacher should ask students to consider why three Protestant Christians self-identify as such even though they disagree about particular beliefs and behaviors.

Religious literacy is a core civic competency. Strong, constitutional lessons about religion belong in history, social studies, and literary arts public school classrooms. We can no longer afford to treat it as a luxury.

Connect with Ben and Heather on Twitter. 

Note: On April 18 the author and his colleagues will host a Conference on Religion in Public Secondary Schools. Email [email protected] for conference details, notifications about future opportunities, or access to full lesson plans that utilize the 3B Framework. 

Image courtesy of Scott Sanders, staff photographer, Daily Herald.

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