Religious “education”

Last week, Ian Bushfield wrote some thoughts on the idea of religious education in public schools:

By offering religious education/instruction, we could hopefully convince parents that the public school system is where their kids should be. Further, we can hopefully expose the children to different ideas about religion and morality, which, demonstrated by the uproar over the comparative ethics course in Quebec, can challenge the basic notions of faith as a virtue.

I happen to agree with Ian on this point (small wonder, we tend to agree with each other generally). Comparative religious education is like comparative literature or anthropology or history – presenting overlapping but non-redundant narratives presents fertile ground for developing a skeptic mind. Teaching kids that there may not always be a “right answer”, particularly when talking about humanity, invites them to consider and critique the evidence for the answers they are presented with. In the context of society, religion is something we should be particularly skeptical about.

Many atheists are wary of religious education in public schools, arguing that there ought to be an inviolable barrier between church and state. While those of us living in Canada do not enjoy that separation as a matter of law (we don’t have an equivalent of the First Amendment in the Canadian Charter), many of us still feel it would violate an important principle of a just society. Maybe those opposed to teaching religion in public schools are worried about something like this:

BBC Panorama found that more than 40 Saudi Students’ Schools and Clubs are teaching the official Saudi national curriculum to about 5,000 pupils. One text book shows how the hands and feet of thieves are chopped off…

One of the text books asks children to list the “reprehensible” qualities of Jewish people. A text for younger children asks what happens to someone who dies who is not a believer in Islam – the answer given in the text book is “hellfire”. Another text describes the punishment for gay sex as death and states a difference of opinion about whether it should be carried out by stoning, burning with fire or throwing the person over a cliff.

Well at least they’re teaching kids about their options…

I think the problem with the blanket objection to religion in schools is a failure to articulate the difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion. Religion, like science, or math, or art, or history, is an important subject to have a factual grasp on. I myself took a course on world religions in high school. Of course by the time I was that age I had pretty much dismissed all religions as having any claim to exclusive truth. However, learning about the historical roots of the different religions helped me better understand both the various faiths and their respective adherents.

I would argue that a proper understanding of religion requires a comprehension of world history and an appreciation for humanity’s foibles. The kind of education (for the former) and critical appraisal and mature cognition (for the latter) that is required for this kind of deep understanding might be beyond the mental capabilities of an elementary school child. However, kids can understand ethics on a more-or-less intuitive level. I would suggest instruction in ethics at that age – not simply a list of things that are right and wrong (the religious equivalent of “ethical instruction”), but instruction on how the kids can work their way through ethical dilemmas.

This would accomplish two things. First, it would help ingrain moral behaviour by equipping children with the tools to make good judgments in the absence of supervising authority. Second, it would help dispel the idea that morals come from religion, by showing the actual process by which we decide morality.

I am not opposed to instruction about religion in public schools. Just like we teach the orbital model of atomic structure as a way of showing what we used to believe, we can teach religion as one of mankind’s many failed models of the world, and what we’ve learned since then.

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  1. says

    I went to a (very very liberal) Catholic college, where one of the required courses was in religious studies. It was actually a very interesting course and I learned a lot (it was the kind of religious studies you describe here, not Catholic indoctrination.) An excellent way to learn about what other people believe and how weird it is sometimes.

  2. says

    I have to agree. A religious studies class, not biased towards one one faith, but a honest exploration into both what people believe and the history of those beliefs should be part of an public education. The role for better or more likely worse that religion has played in history is too large to allow ignorance of believes to go unchecked.

  3. says

    Agreed, but a couple notes.

    First, my article was also trying to tease the idea (although I’m not 100% supportive of it), of even letting religious practice occur in schools for consequentialist reasoning. I agree that it would likely be abused and would end up ostrascizing one group, but it was worth exploring.

    Next, from a physics standpoint, the orbital model is taught for more than just historical interest – otherwise we would teach the flogiston theory of fire or astrology. It’s useful first because it represents the first realization that electron energies need to be quantized (i.e. they can have only specific numbers) and second it’s a stepping stone to think about quantum mechanics in general. It also acts as a rudimentary explanation of why the electrons don’t fall into the nucleus due to gravity and electromagnetic attraction (although we have greatly expanded on the model since). Thank-you Niels Bohr.

  4. says

    Fair enough. I realize it’s a strained comparison, I just meant that there is a straight-line walk from religion to rationality, and teaching the old model helps pave the way for the new one. Teaching kids critical thinking in a vacuum (i.e. without presenting specific examples of the fallacies) may make them more susceptible to them; although it’s entirely possible that it won’t.

    Also, we learned caloric theory in physics, as well as Lamarck in biology – that is perhaps a better example of outmoded ideas than the orbital theory is.

  5. Autumn says

    I fear even comparative religion being taught by a teacher without the background for it. Its hard for the overtly religious here to be unbiased.

    Locally, there is a highschool that has a comparative religion class. They’re teaching that Christianity is the most logical religion. The teacher also taught that Hindus are polytheistic and pagan. When a student who practices the Hindu faith stood up and tried to correct the teacher, it was ignored.

    My cousin, who goes to a different but local highschool, also learned that the Abrahamic faiths all worship different gods, Hindus were polytheistic, and that Christianity is most “logical.”

    I’m uncomfortable with schools teaching “comparative” religion until there are teachers properly trained to actually teach the subject. I’m tired of hearing, ‘so long as you’re a Christian… we all worship the same god.’

    I do think the study of religion is important.

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