It’s been a few weeks since my first post (see ‘What’s wrong with “World Religion”?’) on the topic of rethinking and reshaping my class formerly known as ‘World Religion’, which we’re rebranding as ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’ve completed a couple of lessons, so I’m ready to resume blogging on the topic. The first lesson—1.1, Why Study Religion in High School?—is built around AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. Now, I teach at a private Episcopal school, so I don’t have to worry about violating the First Amendment, or tearing down the wall that separates ‘church and state’, but I do teach a diverse body of students who are associated with a variety of religious traditions. Therefore, I think the same rationale for trying to teach about religion rather that training in religion applies.
AAR promotes three premises for why we should teach religion to high schoolers:
There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the U.S.
One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.
It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary schools.
I’ll begin by asking students to explain what they think these three premises mean. Then, I’ll go premise-by-premise in order to better explain them. To teach the first premise, I’ll be walking students through a series of absolute statements—’Christians believe…Judaism teaches…Buddhists practice…’—and I’ll push students to think critically about these statements in order to help them recognize that the religion is far more complicated than most people recognize and that it needs to be rethought, as a conceptual category, in order to avoid dangerous oversimplifications.
To teach the second premise, I’ll talk to my students about (1) how Sikhs have been mistreated in American; (2) how Islamaphobia fuels this mistreatment; and (3) how Islamaphobia itself is a problem that needs to be addressed (in other words, mistreatment of Sikhs isn’t wrong just because they’re mistaken for Muslims but because Islamaphobia is a dehumanizing and misleading ideology that doesn’t represent Islam and doesn’t correctly address how to respond to difference). I’ll make sure to give students a basic introduction to Sikhism as well (no reason to show them how many Americans misunderstand Sikhism only to leave them without any understanding) using Religion for Breakfast’s helpful video:
To teach the third premise, I’ll lead them through a discussion on what makes our class different from a ‘devotional’ approach to studying religion. Then I’ll give them several reasons for studying religion even if the class isn’t teaching them what to believe religiously.
Here’s a PDF draft of this first lesson for those who are interested:
Students taking my class ‘The Christian Scriptures’ (a.k.a., ‘New Testament’) will spend most of the last few weeks of the semester engaging the Pauline Epistles. Due to COVID-19, there’s a possibility they’ll have to do this from home. Therefore, it’s time for me to begin gathering some online resources. If you think of something to add to this list, please leave a comment (but remember, I teach high school):
Laura Nasrallah of Harvard University has a bunch of short videos on Paul and his letters: The Letters of Paul. I think I may use a lot of this material, especially since the videos are shorter.
And obviously, I’ll have my students read from Paul’s letters themselves via BibleGateway.com.
Also, while students won’t be able to enter class to a ‘Song of the Day’ if we are forced online, I want to continue providing my Slides with one slide containing an embedded link to a YouTube video with what would’ve been the Song of the Day. So, what songs would you choose for Paul and his letters?
This is the question I ask in a variety of ways for the first couple weeks of my class ‘Introduction to World Religion’ (to be named ‘Religion in Global Context’ in 2020-21). One of the ways I’ve had my students wrestle with this question is through a debate. I would split the class in half. One side had to represent the legitimacy of Jediism* and the other Pastafarianism. (Aside: Eventually, I dropped Jediism because it won most of the time…like 90% of the time. I replaced it with ‘Dudeism’—a Taoism-like religion based on the cult film The Big Lebowski. The outcome is more even now. Which makes me wonder why Jediism was so easy to embrace as a religion compared to Pastafarianism and Dudeism.) The point of this exercise is to get them thinking about how we use the word ‘religion’, what it defines, and how subjective our uses can be.
I mention this because Andrew Mark Henry, the scholarly and creative mind behind the YouTube page ‘Religion for Breakfast’, has created a timely video on this topic. I’ll definitely be showing this to my students in the future. If you haven’t checked out Religion for Breakfast, please do. The videos are good and getting better. The content is well-researched. (Henry put notes in the video description and often has in-video citations.)
I think it’s worthwhile to ask questions about newer or lesser-known religions in order to challenge the ‘world religion’ paradigm that equates authentic religion (consciously or subconsciously) with the older, more adhered to, structured religions. It’s one thing to suggest that Coca-Cola is a religion but something else to ask if Jediism or Pastafarianism are (or is it?).
Anyway, if you’d like to see the most recent version of my debate guidelines (I plan on enhancing the criteria and structure before I teach again next fall), here it is:
Among those who say they were raised exclusively by Protestants, roughly eight-in-ten now identify with Protestantism, including 80% of those raised by two Protestant parents and 75% of those raised by a single parent who was Protestant. Most who were raised exclusively by Protestants but who no longer identify as such are now religious “nones,” with smaller numbers now identifying with Catholicism or other religions.
What does this tell us? Well, it indicates that at least among Protestants the greatest indicator of your potential religiosity is the religion of your parents. Other researchers have confirmed this theory.
In Religious Parenting: Transmitting Faith and Values in Contemporary America, Christian Smith, Bridget Ritz, and Michael Rotolo make this observation on pages 6-7: ‘The best general predictor of what any American is like religiously, after comparing all of the other possible variables and factors, is what their parents were like religiously when they were raising their children…when viewing Americans as a whole, the influence of parents on religiousness trumps every other influence, however much parents and children may assume otherwise.’
This raises an important question: What about the rise of the ‘Nones’, i.e. those with no religious affiliation? Surely, most of their parents weren’t Nones! Andrew Henry’s recent episode of Religion for Breakfast attempts to tackle this related question, ‘Why Do People Leave Their Childhood Religion?’ Since this the first question that arose in my mind when I read that most people follow the religion of their parents, I was excited to see this video being released at this moment. Watch it!