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Is Learning About Religion In Schools OK?

By AmyReiter |

Mosque tile

Mosque visit raises questions about prayer in school

A field trip taken by students at a public middle school in Wellesley, Mass., to the Islamic Society of Boston Community Center has touched off a heated controversy after a mother who was chaperoning the trip released video footage of some of the six-graders participating in midday prayers at the center’s mosque. (The footage was released via the group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which, according to the Boston Globe, has been critical of the Islamic center and mosque, New England’s largest, in the past.)

Several organizations have decried the trip for blurring the line between church and state, prompting Wellesley’s school superintendent, Bella Wong, to apologize to parents, saying, “It was not the intent for students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices. The fact that any students were allowed to do so in this case was an error.”

The center insists that the students were not coerced into participating in the prayers, but rather did so of their own volition. And several of the students’ parents have voiced support for the trip as a worthy educational experience. The students had visited the mosque as part of a social studies course, “Enduring Beliefs in the World Today,’’ in which they study not just Islam, but also Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity; they had already visited a synagogue, went to a gospel-music performance and met with representatives of the Hindu faith.

Setting aside the obvious issues about the Islamaphobia currently raging through our nation, the controversy does raise interesting questions about whether children should learn about religion in public school and how to do so while maintaining the separation between church and state.

Personally, I think there’s value in learning about different religions and beliefs – as we would different cultures – in school, though I also believe that children should never feel any pressure to participate in religion or prayers in a public school setting. (I love that my son, who attends a New York public elementary school with a huge Muslim population, came home from kindergarten one day and reported what he had learned about Eid, though I squirmed when my daughter, then attending preK at a public elementary school serving a different population, brought home an Easter basket and coloring-book pictures of Easter eggs for which no context was given.)

What do you think? Is there a place in our public schools for educating children about different religions and beliefs? Or is does any treatment of religion in school blur the line between church and state?

Photo: HORIZON

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About AmyReiter

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AmyReiter

Amy Reiter is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in print publications including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Marie Claire. On the web, along with Babble, Amy has contributed to The Daily Beast, AOL/Huffington Post, MTV.com, and Salon. Catch up with the latest from Amy on her website AmyReiter.com

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0 thoughts on “Is Learning About Religion In Schools OK?

  1. Lisa says:

    Islam is a barbaric religion that treats women as property. If any of my children were to bring home a permission slip about a field trip to a mosque, I wouldn’t sign it just like i wouldn’t allow him to go to a Catholic or Baptist church or an Orthodox shul. I don’t want him exposed to that kind of misogyny.

  2. goddess says:

    I think that a course on comparative religions is imperative- at the high school level though. Truly, I’d prolly leave it out of elementary levels altogether.

  3. Neel says:

    I grew up at a time when schools held Christmas pagents and Easter services as part of their annual programs. When we graduated from grade and high school, we attended a Sunday service held at the Catholic Church. It was exposure to a different religion than mine, but all the above were held as celebrations of student activities and accomplishments.
    I don’t believe we should be stressing any particular religion in our schools, but with all the hate that is expressed by the extreme elements of each part of our society, I think that teaching the difference to students is certainly better than the education they get from the loud and angry voices in our nation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with educating them in the differences of atheisim, either.
    But, feel free to send me to Hell, if you don’t agree.

  4. Doug Indeap says:

    The First Amendment constrains the government (including government-run schools) not to promote or oppose any religion. The public schools thus can teach students “about” various religions, as long as they do not promote or oppose any religion in the process.

  5. ABB says:

    Lisa, the misogyny to which you refer is largely cultural, not religious.

  6. JediKitteh says:

    I think the title of this article is silly… I went to a catholic school my whole school life. I turned out ok. So, is it “EVER” ok to learn about religion in school? Of course it is! IN a public school though? Who knows. I think its good that the class was teaching about all the main world religions…however i think they might have pushed the line a bit. However, didn’t the parents have to sign a permission slip for their child to go?

  7. Bec says:

    I think the more the merrier. The earlier that children learn some unbiased facts about the belief systems of other people around them, the better chance at a truly tolerant society we all have. It shouldn’t hurt anyone’s faith to learn about someone else’s. And how else will kids learn about other groups, the ones they aren’t a part of, particularly those in homes with islamophobic (or anti-religious) parents (who would likely be giving them misinformation if they mentioned it at all).

  8. Munir Munshey says:

    Lisa thinks Islam is barbaric. Influenced by it Muslim women cover their bodies and are derided as properties. By comparison western ladies eagerly display their charms, and are derided by Muslims as no better than whores. That is the conflict _ if not the clash _ of civilization. But property the Muslim ladies definitely are not. They never were. There never was a time when a Muslim woman did not have the right to divorce her ‘master’, without having to assign a reason. Marriage is so barbaric. It restricts a woman to just one man. It may even lead to a sense of being owned.

    But, what was being discussed here is ‘prayers’. The uproar is about some non-Muslim kids praying in the manner of Muslims. Some act as if the Kids are now defiled. As if their head was opened, and the Christian chipset there was replaced by the Muslim chipset.

    Kids will be kids. They are born unprejudiced, and they learn by imitating. No body told them to pray, neither the Muslims nor their supervisor. Was there any damage done?

  9. Amy says:

    Bec, so the “anti-religious” parents “would likely be giving them misinformation if they mentioned it at all”? How “truly tolerant” of you!

  10. jenny tries too hard says:

    Amy, she said “anti-religious” not “non-religious”. Someone who is anti-religious would give at very best, biased, if not outright false information about religion. Someone who’s non-religious would be a totally different story. Similarly, someone who is anti-Islam or anti-Jewish or anti-Christian would be likely to give misleading information about those faiths.

  11. Amy says:

    Obviously, I disagree. It’s entirely possible for somebody to be knowledgeable about different religions and still be opposed to religion, in general, as a practice.

  12. Amanda says:

    I think it’s ok for older elementary school students and up to learn about the world’s big religions, but I’d draw the line at field trips to places of worship. That seems unnecessary and it can apparently lead to trouble.

  13. Doug Indeap says:

    Separation of church and state merely constrains the government (including government-run schools) not to promote or oppose any religion. It does not preclude public schools from teaching “about” religions, as long as they refrain from promoting or opposing any religion.

  14. jenny tries too hard says:

    You can be know a lot, certainly, and still be opposed. But, can you really educate a child about religion while being opposed to it? For that matter, I don’t think very religious parents (I am one) can give their kids a thorough education about other religions, and prefer teaching about all religions in school…not teaching kids to adhere to them, but to understand them. Maybe we could settle this whole “Islam is misogynist; no, that’s all cultural” thing if we were all a little more familiar with it.

  15. Amy says:

    There is a difference between “teaching about religion” and “teaching religion.” An objective teacher can educate students about the role religion has played in historical or social development of a people. This is how I am teaching my children about religion– from more of an historical, sociological, or cultural viewpoint.

  16. JEssica says:

    What school has money to send a select few kids on field trips? They are wasting taxpayer dollars.

  17. Laura says:

    It’s entirely possible to be against organized religion and not biased or prejudiced against the people that practice them. I personally do not want my children involved in organized religion. I feel that religious organizations rely on negativity and fear tactics to keep it’s “sheep” in line. I would much rather my children be free thinking individuals who are concerned with the well being of the world and the people that live on it.

  18. Alicia says:

    Lisa – There are bad points in all religions, so saying only Islam has issues is rather bigoted. As for teaching about religions, I think as long as they are all equally represented, it’s fine, even at a young age (such as talking about the different holidays). We’re a non-religious family, and I have my own personal issues with religion, but I think the teaching of religions as a cultural subject is good.

  19. Linda says:

    I think it’s lovely for children to learn about other religions in a scholarly fashion. I do have a problem when it extends in to pretending to practice that religion though. That just demeans everyone. It demeans the child, who is going through the motions of a religion he doesn’t believe in, and it demeans the real believers of the religion to have nonbelievers play acting their sacred rituals. At our school last year it was a Day of the Dead festival which included altar building. I pulled my kids out of school for that one.

  20. Linda says:

    Hey Lisa, do let me know how I can go about keeping my children away from you and your family members. We’d like to avoid your kind’s misanthropy!

  21. Huh? says:

    We need programs like this, and particularly in regard to Islam. Go read any Drudge Report linked news item that involves Muslims, and be horrified by the comments section. Less “Other” more “different”. As far as misogyny being an issue, I can think of very few religions that don’t have tenets that I object to, but I still see the value in learning about them. Please note- I’m not agreeing that misogyny is a tenet of Islam.

  22. jenny tries too hard says:

    Linda does have a very good point about how teaching about religion can lead to a sort of play-acting that no one is really comfortable with. Teaching religion, beyond the most basic “Don’t be alarmed that some of your friends aren’t eating, it’s Ramadan” should be reserved for the upper grades and should be done very carefully…but it should be done.

  23. jenny tries too hard says:

    To clarify about anti-religious families and perceived bias…it’s not just bias, of course some families are opposed to religion but not exactly biased. It’s about lack of information. How much time/energy can someone who is opposed to religion possibly spend on learning about different faiths? I have a hard time keeping up with my own faith; I can’t imagine that a non-homeschooling parent, who is opposed to religion but not focusing on being against it, would have the time to research the major religions well enough to teach their kids more than the very basics about religions. I can give my kids a pretty good run-down on Catholicism and the specific type of Baptist church I was raised in, but beyond that I’m pretty limited and I’d love to have a curriculum to help that along.

  24. Lisa says:

    Alicia, reread my comment. And yes, Islam is misogynistic in a way Christianity (as practiced today) and Judaism (as practiced today) are not. Islam is misogynistic in the its the dark ages way, let’s stone adulterers even if they were raped kinda way.

  25. Rhona Berens (Parent Alliance) says:

    Comments Part of the issue, for me at least, is the degree to which we, as parents, are comfortable discussing religion/spirituality with our children at home and, also, how much time we’ve spent, as a couple, deciding what role (if any) we want religion/or spirituality to play in our family. In a way, parents with strong, shared religious beliefs have an advantage over those of us with less defined beliefs, at least when it comes to communicating with our kids about religion/spirituality. So while I get that there’s some debate about whether or not kids on a field-trip should pray at a house of worship (mosque or otherwise), I’m most interested in how we, as parents, work together (or don’t) to figure out how we want to discuss religion/spirituality with our kids because, like it or not, they’re going to be exposed to at least a few religions out in the world.

  26. Rhona Berens (Parent Alliance) says:

    Comments Part of the issue, for me at least, is the degree to which we, as parents, are comfortable discussing religion/spirituality with our children at home and, also, how much time we’ve spent, as a couple, deciding what role (if any) we want religion/or spirituality to play in our family. In a way, parents with strong, shared religious beliefs have an advantage over those of us with less defined beliefs, at least when it comes to communicating with our kids about religion/spirituality. So while I get that there’s some debate about whether or not kids on a field-trip should pray at a house of worship (mosque or otherwise), I’m most interested in how we, as parents, work together (or don’t) to figure out how we want to discuss religion/spirituality with our kids because, like it or not, they’re going to be exposed to at least a few religions out in the world.

  27. Lisa says:

    ABB,

    I’ve heard the excuse that its cultural, not religious. I disagree. First of all, it wasn’t that long ago when you did NOT see covered women in Egypt, Iran and the middle east; as Islam again rose to prominence and political power, you saw an increase in hijab and more extreme forms of covering (like niqab and burqa).

    Secondly, women are not under pressure FROM THE STATE to cover in deference to Islam. They are policed. Again, we see this happening as Islam develops political power. The culture hasn’t changed.

  28. ABB says:

    Everything you just described is cultural. The way a civilization or government interprets a religion is part of culture. Islam hasn’t changed, the culture has.
    I’m sure we’ll not agree on this, but i think you could be a little more respectful about Islam in general.

  29. Tim says:

    Islam is not misogynistic. The ignorance in our community about Islam is shameful. I thought the folks in New England were more enlightened. The dialogue here sounds like a hateful ignorant mob. Luckily, very few people will ever read this dribble. Our Jewish friends saw this behaviour before the Holocaust. Stop, reflect, and renounce ignorance.

  30. Linda says:

    Theocracy doesn’t work as a form of government. We’d all do well to remember that. Remember all those 80′s Afghan women who wore modern dress and became doctors? That was the direct result of occupation by the good, old USSR. The United States supported the Taliban.

  31. JennaBoettger says:

    In my public school we learned the basics of different religions. Most of us were very interested to learn about beliefs we didn’t encounter (we lived in a very small town with no one of any religion other then Christianity) and I don’t remember any parents objecting to it. Information on a vast array of subjects is crucial to raising well rounded, inteligent children.

  32. Lisa says:

    ABB,

    It’s religious. The Christians in those countries do not do these things. The Jews who lived there (before they were kicked out) did not do those things.

  33. Munir Munshey says:

    The misconceptions and dissembling about Islam continue. Here is the example: “let’s stone adulterers even if they were raped kinda”. One only has to read chapter 24 of the Quran. Those accusing anyone of adultery have to produce proof, or the accusers are punished. Women are never held culpable if they claim rape, unless proved otherwise. The burden of proof to adjudge anyone guilty is extremely high.

    I agree with Lisa that there has been an upsurge of religiosity among the Muslims, as also among the Christians and the Hindus. More Muslim ladies are wearing Hijab, but in most countries it is despite the government and not because of it. I also agree that there is pressure from the family and the society upon the ladies to cover up.

    Societies do not exist in a vacuum. Pressure always is there from the media, the school system and the family. The nudge may be subtle or not so subtle, and towards good or bad. The western society does nudge its young to uncover. Are we completely satisfied with the way the young ones are turning out in America? Should the society not nudge them towards morality and fidelity, rather than promiscuity and immorality?

  34. Natalie says:

    Lisa, obviously, you do not know any thing about Islam, and you are commenting here just to show your racist ideas about Islam, but let me tell you some thing about the covered women in Islam, as you see it “as property,” the covered women in Islam, is just to protect here from being starred at, from being rapped, and i guess that no Muslim woman see it as you see, as if they feel that way, hello they have their well and they can say no, or even go to another religion, but all in all, I’m not talking that stuff about Islam as I’m a Muslim or something, but just I’m not a racist and I wanted to show my opinion as here, I see a lot of racist people while we should not be that way, as there are Christians everywhere, and i have a friend who is a christian and live in Egypt and don’t face such races that we treat the Muslims here.

  35. ChiLaura says:

    Well, I’m late to this one, but hey there, Linda! You know what else occupation by the good ol’ USSR produced? About 20 million dead. Yup, atheistic regimes are *real good* for the ol’ human race now, aren’t they?

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