Comparative religious study for our teens
Jeff Kaley, Waurika News-Democrat
To my knowledge, Tom Adelson and I have never cross paths. But on the issue of teaching religion in public schools, Adelson and I seem to walk the same road.
When the Oklahoma Senate passed a measure allowing the Bible to be taught in public schools, Adelson, a Democrat from Tulsa, was one of four senators voting nay.
The bill would allow school districts to offer an elective course to students in grade nine through 12 that would present the Bible as a historic and literary document. The curriculum — and instructors — would be mandated to maintain religious neutrality.
I don't have as much problem with that concept as Adelson seems to have. While I feel teaching the Bible nudges the boundary of separation of church and state, the senator feels the legislation "is taking us down a dangerous route."
But I do share Adelson's notion the Oklahoma Senate blew a chance to put a comparative religion curriculum in our public schools.
See, if I were King of the Forest, all high school seniors would be required to take a comparative religion and ethics course before they graduate.
Forgive my memory for being less than crystal clear, but a decade or so ago, a major national magazine — either Time or U.S. News & World Report — ran a series based on an extensive study of religion in American life.
Some of the numbers in the study were revealing, and they probably have changed little since the series was published.
At that time, over 80 percent of Americans classified themselves as Christian; about 75 percent listed affiliation with a religious denomination; and around 95 percent believed in some type of higher spiritual power.
However, the survey also indicated less than 40 percent knew that Judaism, Christianity and Islam were based on the same God figure (Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah).
Fewer than four in 10 could identify a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Less than 30 percent correctly answered more than one question on a short multiple-choice quiz asking what made Methodists different from Presbyterians, Baptists different from Lutherans, etc.
I came away from the series with this conclusion: We need to be teaching comparative religion and ethics in U.S. public schools.
It's simple, actually: If we're to coexist in a world of many religions, doesn't it make sense to know something about the different sects, like what they believe and why they believe it?
I'm still staunchly in the corner of separation of church and state. I don't want school children reciting the Lord's Prayer in unison each morning. I'm uneasy with group prayer at school-sponsored events, and don't want "creationism" taught as science.
I believe the Supreme Court must protect the rights of those in our society who are not Christians.
However, religion and ethics are basic to the human condition, and religion has long been a driving force behind human interaction — good or bad.
That being the case, shouldn't instruction in comparative religion and ethics be a basic building block of education?
Shiites and Sunnis split shortly after Mohammed died. How come?
The analytic think-tank of a classroom seems the right venue for a 17-year-old to learn that nearly 2 billion believers make Christianity the largest religious sect in the world, but there are also about 150,000 people in the world who practice Zorasterianism, a religion founded in 1,000 B.C. by Zarathustra, whose teachings influenced Christianity and Islam.
What is Judaism? Why do over 14 million people practice it? How does Jainism differ from Hinduism? Do Rastafarians believe in more than smoking ganja? How do you differentiate between Shinto and Cao Dai? Isn't it true that "do unto others ..." is a basic tenant of nearly all religions?
What are Calvinists? How do you tell one from an Anglican? What's the rationale behind the Ten Commandments? If there is right and wrong, what is "right" and what is "wrong?"
We always point at education being a key in humanity learning to coexist. So let's start educating secondary students about religion in a comparative fashion, instead of waiting until they're in college and need an elective to graduate.
Giving teenagers an academic perspective of religion and ethics might result in human beings understanding one another better. And who knows where that might lead?
Posted on Fri, May 21, 2010