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for Teaching About Religionin K-12 Public Schools in the United States

Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United StatesProduced by the AAR Religion in the Schools Task Force; Diane L. Moore, ChairCopyright 2010 American Academy of Religion

Executive SummaryThe United States Department of Education requires states to develop content standards and academicassessments for each subject taught in public schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade (K-12). Statedepartments of education are guided in this task by national educational associations that have crafted their ownstandards and guidelines using the collective wisdom of scholars and educators in each subject. Though religionis not a separate, required subject in public K 12 schools, religion is embedded in curriculum standards acrossdisciplines, especially in social studies and English, and there are a growing number of elective courses that focuson religious themes or topics explicitly.Because 1) the study of religion is already present in public schools, 2) there are no content and skill guidelinesfor educators about religion itself that are constructed by religious studies scholars, and 3) educators andschool boards are often confused about how to teach about religion in constitutionally sound and intellectuallyresponsible ways, the American Academy of Religion (the world’s largest association of religion scholars) haspublished these Guidelines as a resource for educators and interested citizens.Three premises inform this project: illiteracy regarding religion 1) is widespread, 2) fuels prejudice andantagonism, and 3) can be diminished by teaching about religion in public schools using a non-devotional,academic perspective, called religious studies.There are important differences between this approach and a faith-based approach to teaching and learningabout religion. These Guidelines support the former, constitutionally sound approach for teaching about religionin public schools—encouraging student awareness of religions, but not acceptance of a particular religion; studyingabout religion, but not practicing religion; exposing students to a diversity of religious views, but not imposing anyparticular view; and educating students about all religions, but not promoting or denigrating religion. 1In teaching about religion, public school teachers draw on the following methodological approaches: historical,literary, traditions based, and cultural studies. Regardless of the approach(es) used, however, teaching aboutreligion needs to convey three central premises of academic learning about religion: religions are internallydiverse; religions are dynamic; and religions are embedded in culture.Given that few educators have taken religious studies courses, the AAR encourages using these Guidelines insubstantial teacher pre-service and professional training that imparts content, pedagogy, and academically andconstitutionally sound approaches for teaching about religion in K-12 public schools.April 2010i

Table of ContentsExecutive Summary. iIntroduction.3The American Academy of ReligionOverview of GuidelinesPart One: Why Teach About Religion? .4Premise One:There exists a widespread illiteracy aboutreligion in the United States.Premise Two:One of the most troubling and urgentconsequences of religious illiteracy is thatit often fuels prejudice and antagonismthereby hindering efforts aimed atpromoting respect for diversity, peacefulcoexistence, and cooperative endeavors inlocal, national, and global arenas.Premise Three: It is possible to diminish religious illiteracyby teaching about religion from a nondevotional perspective in primary, middle,and secondary schools.Part Two: Religion, Educationand the Constitution.7Guidelines for Teaching About ReligionPart Three: How to Teach About Religion.9IntroductionApproaches to Teaching About ReligionThe Historical ApproachThe Literary ApproachPremises of Religious StudiesReligions are Internally DiverseSnapshots of PracticeReligions are DynamicSnapshots of PracticeReligions are Embedded in CultureSnapshots of PracticeFrequently Asked QuestionsConclusionPart Four: Teacher Education.18Content CompetenciesPedagogical CompetenciesAppropriate Attitudes/PosturesExamples of Opportunities for Teachersto Learn About ContentNotes about Legality, Method, and PedagogyConclusion.21Appendix A:List of Religion in the Schools Task Forceand Working Group MembersAppendix B:A Sampling of Consensus Documents onTeaching About ReligionAppendix C:Notes on Other Dimensions of TeachingAbout Religion in SchoolsAppendix D:Snapshots of PracticeThe Traditions Based ApproachNotes.29The Cultural Studies ApproachBibliography.34A Note About TextbooksA Note About Media Literacy and ReligionSetting the ContextInitial StepsiiAAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

IntroductionThe United States Department of Education requires states todevelop content standards and academic assessments for eachdiscipline taught in public schools from kindergarten throughtwelfth grade (K-12). State departments of education areguided in this task by national educational associations thathave crafted their own standards and guidelines representingthe collective wisdom of scholars and educators in each relevanteducational field. For example, the National Council for theSocial Studies (NCSS) comprises elementary, secondary andcollege level teachers and other educational personnel whowork in the broad areas that encompass the social studies:history, geography, economics, political science, sociology,psychology, anthropology, and law. Similarly, the NationalCouncil for Teachers of English (NCTE) is made up ofteachers and supervisors of English programs in elementary,middle, and secondary schools, faculty in college and universityEnglish departments, teacher educators, local and state agencyEnglish specialists, and professionals in related fields. There aresimilar organizations formed for the sciences, the arts, physicaleducation, English as a second language, and technology,among others. The primary aims of these associations are topromote responsible education about their fields and to provideleadership, support, and service to their educators.Though religious studies is not a required subject in public K-12schools, religion is embedded in curriculum standards acrossdisciplines, and it is especially prominent in social studies andEnglish at the state and national association levels. Given therising interest in the study of religion due to national and globalaffairs, there are also a growing number of elective coursesoffered in schools that focus on religious themes or topicsexplicitly, such as “The Bible as Literature” and “Introduction toWorld Religions.” Given that 1) the study of religion is alreadypresent in public schools, 2) there are no content and skillguidelines for educators about religion itself that are constructedby religious studies scholars, and 3) educators and schoolboards are often confused about how to teach about religion inconstitutionally sound and intellectually responsible ways, thereis a strong consensus that a set of guidelines for teaching aboutreligion is needed. 2IntroductionThe American Academy of ReligionThere is not a similar national educational association like theNCSS or NCTE that focuses on religious studies per se,3 butthe American Academy of Religion (AAR) is the professionalorganization best suited to construct scholarly guidelines forteaching about religion in K-12 schools. It is the world’s largestassociation of scholars who research or teach topics related toreligion. There are some 10,000 members comprised largely offaculty at colleges, universities, and theological schools in NorthAmerica with a growing number from institutions of highereducation in Asia, Africa, and Europe.The AAR has been involved in addressing issues related toteaching about religion in public schools since the 1970s. Theseefforts have included producing publications in the 1970sand early 1980s addressing the legal, curricular, moral, andpedagogical dimensions of teaching about religion in publicK-12 schools;4 helping to establish a number of programs andresource centers at various universities throughout the U.S.;5 andidentifying opportunities for religious studies faculty at collegesto help educate K-12 teachers about religion. Given the absenceof authoritative standards penned by religious studies scholarsfor teaching about religion in K-12 schools, in 2007 the AARdecided to develop a set of standards and guidelines as a resourcefor educators, parents and school boards, who are faced with anincreasingly complex array of challenges regarding how to teachabout religion responsibly in public school contexts. The AAR’sReligion in the Schools Task Force guided this initiative.6Overview of GuidelinesPart One addresses why it is important to teach about religion, andPart Two outlines ways to teach about religion in constitutionallysound ways. Part Three is an overview of approaches to teachingabout religion and includes grade-specific examples based on boththe Standards for Social Studies7 (produced by the National Councilfor the Social Studies) and Standards for the English LanguageArts8 (produced by the National Council for Teachers of English).Given that 1) religion is already present throughout both of thesedocuments and 2) these standards are highly influential in thecreation of state and local curricula frameworks, it is appropriate toutilize them to construct guidelines for religious studies. Finally,Part Four makes recommendations for teacher educators regardingskill and content competencies required for teachers to havesufficient knowledge to teach about religion responsibly.3

Why Teach About Religion?Three fundamental premises inform this project. First,there exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in theU.S.; second, there are several consequences that stemfrom this illiteracy, including the ways that it fuelsprejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering effortsaimed at promoting respect for diversity, peacefulcoexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local,national, and global arenas; and third, it is possible todiminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religionfrom an academic, non-devotional perspective inprimary, middle, and secondary schools.Religious illiteracy is defined in this document as alack of understanding about the following: the basic tenets of the world’s religioustraditions and other religious expressions notcategorized by tradition; the diversity of expressions and beliefs withintraditions and representations; and the profound role that religion plays inhuman social, cultural, and political lifehistorically and today.Conversely, religious literacy is defined in thefollowing way: the ability to discern and analyze theintersections of religion with social, political, andcultural life. Specifically, a religiously literate personwill possess: 4a basic understanding of the history, centraltexts (where applicable), beliefs, practices andcontemporary manifestations of several ofthe world’s religious traditions and religiousexpressions as they arose out of and continueto shape and be shaped by particular social,historical and cultural contexts; and 9the ability to discern and explore the religiousdimensions of political, social and culturalexpressions across time and place.10These definitions assume that religion is a social/cultural phenomenon that is embedded in humanpolitical, social and cultural life. They also assume thatreligion shapes and is shaped by the social/historicalcontexts out of which particular religious expressionsand influences emerge. Finally, these definitionsassume that there is a difference between devotionalbeliefs and practices and the study of religion from anacademic, secular frame of reference. In this context,secular means a constitutionally defined approach tothe teaching of religion that neither privileges norrejects any particular religious tradition or expression.One way to characterize this distinction is torecognize the difference between religious educationthat promotes a particular faith perspective (often butnot exclusively associated with religious communitiesor schools) and learning about religion through areligious studies framework that is non-devotional,inclusive, and comparative in both form and function.Faith-based explorations are intended to promote aparticular theological worldview and to encouragepractitioners to articulate values and adopt practicesthat are consonant with that set of beliefs. A religiousstudies approach to teaching about religion isintended to introduce students to the vast array offaith-based expressions that exist within and betweentraditions with the aim of deepening understandingabout religious diversity and the roles that religionplays in political, economic, and cultural life acrosstime. Both approaches are legitimate ways to thinkabout religion that can serve complementary butdistinctive ends. It is important to note, however,that the non-devotional religious studies approachAAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

is the constitutionally appropriate one to employfor teaching about religion in public schools. TheseGuidelines represent a religious studies perspective.Premise Number One: There exists a widespreadilliteracy about religion in the U.S.The following are examples of some of the ways thatreligious illiteracy manifests itself among a diversearray of U.S. citizens:1. Religious traditions and expressions areoften represented inaccurately by thoseoutside of and within religious traditions andcommunities.2. Religious leaders and believers of a givenreligious tradition or expression are assumedto be the best sources of information aboutthe tradition or expression and are oftenlooked to formally or informally as “experts.”113. The distinction between the study of religionand religious devotional expression is rarelyunderstood.4. Religious traditions and expressions are oftenrepresented as internally uniform and static asopposed to diverse and evolving.5. In some contexts, religion is interpreted asa “private” affair distinct from the secular“public” sphere of political, economic, andcultural life.These common manifestations of religious illiteracyare widespread and should not be interpretedas evidence of a lack of intellectual capability orawareness on the part of those who harbor these andsimilar assumptions. Given that the main sources ofinformation about religion come from training inor about one’s own religious tradition (or none) andthe media, it should come as no surprise that theseand other forms of religious illiteracy are prevalent.Appropriately, individuals who are raised in orconvert to a certain faith tradition or expression willlearn about that tradition or expression within theirfaith communities or through devotionally basedforms of education in the schools aimed at promotinga particular religious worldview and values that arePart One: Why Teach About Religion?consonant with it. Individuals who are not religiousalso learn particular worldviews and associatedvalues from family and/or community members.In relationship to religion, these values are oftena-religious or anti-religious. The other main sourceof information about religion is the media wherecoverage about religion is often inaccurate or focusedon “newsworthy” events that present a distorted viewof the role of religion in contemporary life.12 Neithersource (one’s own faith tradition/worldview and themedia) expose individuals to a comprehensive studyof religion because they1. do not knowledgeably and even-handedlyrepresent the diversity within a given traditionor expression, and2. do not explore and analyze religion as asocial/cultural phenomenon.13Such an understanding requires a non-devotional,academic approach to the study of religion andalthough there are some schools that offer instructionrepresenting this approach in primary, middle, andsecondary education, relatively few citizens have theopportunity to engage in this type of inquiry.Premise Number Two: One of the most troublingand urgent consequences of religious illiteracy isthat it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, therebyhindering efforts aimed at promoting respect fordiversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperativeendeavors in local, national, and global arenas.14Religious illiteracy is certainly not the sole oreven primary cause of the heartbreaking violencethat dominates local and global news stories. It is,however, often a contributing factor in fosteringa climate whereby certain forms of bigotry andmisrepresentation can emerge unchallenged andthus serve as one form of justification for violenceand marginalization. Many others share thisconcern as evidenced by a consultation focusingon this topic in 2006 that was sponsored by theUnited Nations,15 and numerous initiatives inEurope.16 One example of the negative consequencesof religious illiteracy is that it has contributedto Christian forms of anti-Semitism. Anotherexample in countries where Muslims are in the5

minority is the widespread association of Islamwith terrorism and the consequent justification ofindividual hate crimes against those perceived tobe Muslim. A third example is the antagonismsthat are fueled between different expressions of thesame tradition (e.g. between Protestant and RomanCatholic Christians and between Sunni and Shi’iMuslims). A fourth and final example is when somedismiss religion altogether as obsolete, irrational, orinherently oppressive, thereby offending the dignityand sensibilities of people of faith everywhere.Enhancing literacy about religion can foster betterunderstanding among people of different faithsand worldviews. Such knowledge can enrich civicdimensions of education and better prepare studentsfor participation in democratic processes in ourmulti-religious nation.As was noted in the introduction, religion is alreadydeeply embedded in curricula across the K-12spectrum. Our aim is to help equip educators withthe tools to teach about religion in intellectuallyresponsible, constitutionally sound, and educationallymeaningful ways. The following section focuses onthe legal issues related to teaching about religion andPart Three will offer examples of how to integratethe study of religion into existing curricula anddepartment structures.Premise Number Three: It is possible to diminishreligious illiteracy by teaching about religion from anon-devotional perspective in primary, middle, andsecondary schools.Training in religious literacy provides citizens withthe tools to better understand religion as a complexand sophisticated social/cultural phenomenonand individual religious traditions or expressionsthemselves as internally diverse and constantlyevolving as opposed to uniform, absolute, andahistorical. Learning about religion as a social/cultural phenomenon also helps people recognize,understand, and critically analyze how religion hasbeen and will continue to be used to inspire andsometimes justify the full range of human agencyfrom the heinous to the heroic. Finally, those trainedin religious studies learn to question the accuracyof absolutist claims such as “Islam is a religion ofpeace” or “Judaism and Islam are incompatible” or“All religions are fundamentally the same,” therebyhelping to deepen discourse about religion inthe public sphere. Learning about religion is noguarantee that religious bigotry and chauvinismwill cease, but it will make it more difficult for suchbigotry and chauvinism to be unwittingly reproducedand promoted.6AAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

Religion, Education and the ConstitutionCongress shall make no law respecting an establishmentof religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. 17There were two important and related SupremeCourt rulings in the 1960s that were pivotal indefining the role of religion in public education. InEngel v. Vitale (1962) it was decided that governmentshould not sponsor prayers in public schools. InAbington v. Schempp (1963) the Supreme Courtruled that the government should not sponsor Biblereading for devotional purposes and recitation ofthe Lord’s Prayer in public schools. While manyhailed these rulings as a strong endorsement ofthe separation of church and state and thus anaffirmation of pluralism, others felt that they signaledthe demise of a common moral foundation thatserved to unite all Americans amidst our diversity.These same tensions persist today, and many trace theroots of contemporary conflicts regarding religion inthe public sphere to these rulings.18Though the heart of these decisions addressed whatwas not permissible in public education, there was animportant affirmation in Abington v. Schempp regardingwhat was allowed in the intersection of religion and theschools. As Justice Thomas C. Clark wrote:It might well be said that one’s education is notcomplete without a study of comparative religionor the history of religion and its relationship tothe advancement of civilization. It certainly maybe said that the Bible is worthy of study for itsliterary and historic qualities. Nothing we havesaid here indicates that such study of the Bible orof religion, when presented objectively as part of asecular program of education, may not be effectedconsistently with the First Amendment.19Part Two: Religion, Education and the ConstitutionThis important articulation has often beenoverlooked in the history of how the separation ofchurch and state in the schools has been interpreted.Though there has been a slight shift over the pastdecade, most Americans since the 1960s believe thatthe separation of church and state that is affirmedin the rulings cited above meant that religion inall forms was banned. As Justice Clark’s commentsabove clearly indicate, this is not at all the case.Indeed, some have argued that it may be a violationof the First Amendment when the study of religionis not included in public school curricula. Though it isclear that teaching about religion is acceptable, howto do so in a constitutionally sound and intellectuallyresponsibly manner is a more complex undertaking.Guidelines for Teaching About ReligionIn 1974, religious studies scholar James V. Panochdeveloped a set of guidelines for distinguishingbetween teaching religion in a way that promotesa particular faith and teaching about religion froma religious studies perspective.20 A version of theseguidelines was adopted by the First AmendmentCenter and is featured prominently in several of itspublications, including one entitled A Teacher’s Guideto Religion in the Public Schools:21 The school’s approach to religion is academic,not devotional. The school strives for student awarenessof religions, but does not press for studentacceptance of any religion. The school sponsors study about religion, notthe practice of religion.7

The school may expose students to a diversityof religious views, but may not impose anyparticular view. The school educates about all religions, it doesnot promote or denigrate religion. The school informs students about variousbeliefs; it does not seek to conform students toany particular belief.22These guidelines appropriately assume the distinctionbetween teaching about religion from a nondevotional, academic perspective versus teachingreligion through a devotional lens. As such, theyprovide a useful thumbnail sketch to guide educatorsin the public school context. Indeed, they have beenvery helpful in alerting teachers and administrators tothe fact that there is a distinction between a secularand devotional approach. As noted above, one of themanifestations of widespread religious illiteracy is theequation of religious studies with devotional practice.It is important to note here that teaching aboutreligion from a non-devotional, religious studiesapproach is not without controversy. For example,teaching about religion gives credibility to religionitself as a valid field of inquiry and assumes thelegitimacy of multiple religious perspectives.Some who believe that their convictions representan exclusive truth may find these assumptionschallenging. Many other citizens recognize the valueof increasing literacy about religion and believe thatthe public schools are the appropriate venue forthis type of learning to occur. The AAR Guidelinesfor Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schoolsrepresent this latter perspective and are based onthe assumption that public schools are appropriatelygoverned by secular laws and values that support theinclusion of the non-devotional study of religionfrom an academic perspective across the curriculum.The next section will focus on how to achieve thisinclusion by outlining different approaches to thestudy of religion (historical, literary, tradition based,and cultural studies) and offering grade-specificexamples of how to integrate theory with practice.8AAR Guidelines for Teaching About Religion

How to Teach About ReligionIntroductionThis chapter provides an overview of variousapproaches for how religion gets taught in schoolsalong with an assessment of the strengths andweaknesses associated with these methods. Discussionabout religion presents unique challenges to classroomteachers, and this section presents ways for educatorsto introduce religion as a topic as well as waysthey can help students develop a more nuancedunderstanding of religion beyond stereotyped orsimplistic representations. In order to ground theseideas in practice, we have provided some snapshots ofclassroom practices across disciplines and grade levelsas examples of what is possible.23 This chapter endswith answers to frequently asked questions posed bystudents about religion.Approaches to Teaching About ReligionTeachers are expected to teach about religion in avariety of ways in their classrooms. The three mostcommon occur when1. the curriculum demands coverage of thehistorical origins of religious traditions ortheir contemporary relevance;2. the novels or stories they teach have explicitreligious themes or allusions; and3. their students raise questions based on theirown experiences and knowledge.How teachers respond to these expectations differsgreatly, and the choice of approaches used by teachersis influenced by their subject area, their training,and their own personal views. Three approaches toreligion commonly taught in public schools are thehistorical, literary, and traditions-based methods.Part 3: How to Teach About ReligionA fourth method, a cultural studies approach,incorporates dimensions of all these approachesand is promoted by religious studies and educationscholars. These four approaches are outlinedbelow and analyzed regarding their strengths andweaknesses for classroom use.The Historical ApproachThis approach is very commonly used in social studiesclasses where religion occurs within courses or lessonsfocused on history. The strengths of the historicalapproach are clear: the origins of a religion and itsdevelopment are presented in historical context withthe political and cultural influences represented ascentral to understanding how that religion emerged,gained followers, and spread. Religions do notevolve in a vacuum, and looking at the historicalcircumstances that shaped the development of atradition or worldview can help students see thatreligions are complex webs of practices and valueswith a variety of expressions rather than monolithic,fully formed sets of ideas and beliefs. There is noinherent weakness in this approach, but in practiceteachers report24 that they lack the knowledge basein religious studies required to address the historicalcomplexities of religion adequately. Furthermore,religions are often only explored in their premodern contexts in ways that can leave studentswith the impression that 1) religion became (andcontinues to be) obsolete in the modern era; or 2)that religious beliefs formed and then solidifiedinto unchanging systems. Students rarely learn howreligions continually evolve and change beyond theeighteenth century, nor are they given the necessarytools to knowledgeably consider and evaluate theroles religions play in modern cultures.9

The Literary ApproachThis is common in English language arts classesin which students read religious texts themselvesor novels, stories, and poetry with religious themesand/or imagery. Using this approach, teachers helpstudents gain an appreciation of the way that religioninfuses all aspects of culture by seeing how religiousallusion and metaphor can become a commonlanguage that is shared by a people. Looking ata particular story where religious expression is atheme helps students see the very specific ways thatindividuals experience their religion and helps toreinforce the idea that generalizations about religionare often flawed. When the focus is on religious textsthemselves, students learn to appreciate their literaryvalue and how religious texts influence literarystyles. Similar to the historical approach, there is noinherent weakness in the literary method itself. Thechallenge is that most educators lack the trainingin religious studies that is required to provide theappropriate information about religion relevant tothe texts that are studied. In the absence of suchtraining, teachers often rely on their own devotionalexperiences of a tradition or reference otherdevotional interpretations as adequate sources ofinformation. This often leads to partial or otherwiseproblematic interpretations as

Religion in the Schools Task Force guided this initiative.6 Overview of Guidelines Part One addresses why it is important to teach about religion, and Part Two outlines ways to teach about religion in constitutionally sound ways. Part Three is an overview of approaches to teaching about religion