9 Ways of Raising Issues of Religious Pluralism in the Schools

Someone said to me once that throughout the ages, more people have been killed in the name of religion than all the people who have ever died of all diseases combined. I don't know whether this is actually the case, but I do think it highlights a vital point: we continually reject, oppress, and kill others and are killed by others over differing belief systems. How many wars are we going to justify in the name of "God," our "God" versus their so-called "false god(s)"?

Today, the United States stands as one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. This diversity poses great challenges as well as great opportunities. I would ask, though, with all that is happening in our country and around the world enacted in the name of religion, how religiously literate are we as a nation?

According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, great many U.S.-Americans have very little knowledge or understanding of "the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own." In addition, "many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are."

Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified the ways in which the First Amendment relates to public schools in the cases of Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963). The court ruled that schools may not sponsor religious practices, though they may teach about religion as an academic topic. In addition, while not ruling directly on the matter of religious holidays in the school, the Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court decision (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 8th Circuit, 1980) declaring that recognition of religious holidays may be constitutional when the purpose is to give secular instruction about religion or religious traditions rather than to promote any specific religious doctrine or practice.

An inclusive model, one that ensures individuals' and groups' freedom of as well as freedom from religion is the concept as well as, I would suggest, the national goal of "cultural and religious pluralism." The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term "cultural pluralism" to challenge the image of the so-called "melting pot," which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the "melting pot"), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about world religions and by helping to ensure religious pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students "construct" or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students' prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition during throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to teach and bring about religious pluralism and equity in the public schools -- for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another -- some foundational guidelines can be considered:

1. Assessment: Hold public hearing, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of members of different faith communities and non-believers. This can help in assessing the overall religious "climate" or your school.

2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting students, faculty, staff, and administrators of every faith and non-believers from harassment, violence, and discrimination, and to provide equity of treatment that adapt for religious accommodations.

3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer training to all school personnel, including guidance counselors and social workers, in religious diversity and bullying prevention, and specifically to address the religious accommodation needs of students and school personnel.

4. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age appropriate collections of books, videos/DVDs, and other academic materials pertaining to world religions and to non-believers.

5. Educational Forums: Schools can organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to religious diversity and religious pluralism.

6. Curriculum and School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information regarding religious issues presented uniformly and without bias or judgment. In this regard, when introducing a topic, it is often effective to bring to the classroom or school assembly a panel of outside speakers composed of, for example, individuals who identity within a specific religious faith community or non-believers.

7. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to recruit faculty and staff from disparate religious and spiritual background as well as non-believers to serve as supportive role models for all youth.

8. Teacher Certification: Include information and training on issues pertaining to religious diversity and religious oppression in college and university teacher education programs.

9. Continuing Education:

• Educate yourself about world religions and the history of religion and religious oppression in the United States and other countries throughout the world.

• Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of people from many religious and spiritual backgrounds and non-believers. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear the voices of religious minorities and non-believers when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not try to change them. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)

• Put yourself in the shoes of religious minorities and non-believers, especially during major Christian holiday seasons. Attempt to experience those seasons from their perspectives. What do you perceive? Ask yourself next time you automatically wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter, or when you are about to send someone a Christmas or even a Season's Greeting card, whether the person on the other end would truly welcome the gesture, or whether you might be imposing your traditions and values on that person.

• Attend events of religions other than your own.

• Be aware of the generalizations you make. If you are of a certain religious background, do not assume that all people you meet are from that background. Assume there of people of other faiths and non-believers in your school, workplace, and community.

• Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to assess their level of sensitivity to issues related to religious pluralism.

• Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking positions in support of religious pluralism.

As we learn more about people and their religious ideas, customs, and consciousness different from our own, maybe, just maybe, will we experience a more just, equitable, and, yes, peaceful world.