RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY, AND EDUCATION
ON THE EVE OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Warren A. Nord
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill




If you believe that the twenty-first century doesn’t start until January 1 of the year 2001 then you may well think that my lecture should be titled "Religion, Spirituality, and Education on the Eve of the Eve of the Twenty-First Century." Of course, many scholars believe that Jesus was most likely born in the year 4 BC, so it could be argued that we are actually approaching the year 2003—or is it 2004 because there was no year 0? Now if you are a Muslim it will be 1420, and according to the Jewish calendar January 1 falls in the year 5760. If you are a mystic you know that time is an illusion so you probably view all of this as irrelevant.

There is a serious point that I want to make about religion, education, and our dating system, however. About half the world history texts I’ve reviewed in recent years don’t bother to explain what BC and AD (or, to use the more common terms now, BCE and CE) mean. The other half typically explain what the abbreviations stand for in a sentence or two, mentioning that the birth of Jesus was traditionally ascribed to the year 1. But that’s it.

So what is the significance of this? For Christians, Jesus is God incarnate—and this is no small matter. Indeed, God’s incarnation into this world is the turning point in the unfolding drama of human history. Interestingly, none of the world histories that I’ve reviewed mention this claim about Jesus—that Christians believe that he was God. Nor, does the birth of Jesus make any difference at all in the way the texts divide history up into periods. If you look at the omnipresent time lines in the texts you will see that the joints of history are to be found in the break between ancient and classical history, or between Greek and Roman history, or between Roman and medieval history—but not between B.C. and A.D. That is, students are taught to conceive of the shape of history in secular rather than sacred categories. (Of course, one could make parallel arguments regarding Judaism and Islam.)

Now, it is widely acknowledged that students must learn something about religion in the course of studying history; we typically take this to mean that some mention of religious leaders and movements and institutions should be incorporated into our historical narratives. But of course—of course—those narratives must be secular narratives. Indeed, our standards of historical evidence, our conceptions of historical causation, our interpretations of the meaning of history, are, like historical periodization, entirely secular. That is, while students will learn a little about religion in the course of studying history, we teach them how to think about religion in secular historical terms; we don’t teach them how to think about history religiously.

My parable of the dates is meant to suggest a larger point about the relationship of religion and education. Secular ways of making sense of the world and our lives have replaced older religious alternatives across the curriculum. The importance of this fact is largely unappreciated—except, of course, on the Religious Right, where there is deep distrust of public education and considerable support for vouchers and private schooling. I want to argue today that what is at issue here is much more interesting and much more important than is generally appreciated in educational and academic circles.
 
 

There is no great mystery about why religion disappeared from the curriculum of public schools. Quite simply, public education reflects the dominant ideas and ideals of our culture, and as our culture and particularly as our intellectual life have grown increasingly secular, so has public education. We can see this in at least three ways.

First, the Framers of our Constitution were well aware of the horrors of religious warfare and persecution in Europe. They believed that in the pluralistic culture of the new United States government must be built on common ground if persecution and religious conflict were to be avoided. So they disestablished religion, relegating it to the private sphere. Similarly, it was the task of the early public or common schools of the nineteenth century to unite an increasingly individualistic and pluralistic culture; schools should teach what we hold in common, not what divides us. Because religion was divisive, schools began to marginalize it--not in one fell swoop, certainly, but gradually. Americanism, by contrast, would unite us, and in an immigrant nation educators gave it many of the tasks given to religion in earlier times and more homogeneous cultures—indeed Americanism became the de facto religion of our educational system.

Second, our civilization--and our educational institutions--grew more secular as material wealth and happiness in this world became the goals of life, rather than salvation in a world to come. By the end of the nineteenth century the purposes of schooling had become in large part economic--to pass on that practical knowledge that would enable individuals and the country to thrive economically.

Third, the extraordinary success of modern science and social science in creating new ways of making sense of the world led to a devaluation of traditional religion. Physicists and biologists saw no need to appeal to God in explaining the workings of nature; nor did psychologists or economists find Scripture relevant in explaining human nature or the economy. Consequently, educators didn’t either.

As a result, by the end of the nineteenth century, fifty years before the Supreme Court first addressed the place of religion in public schools in 1948, religion had largely disappeared from public schools. True, a ceremonial remnant of religion--school prayers, devotionals, and Bible-reading--survived in some places (occasionally up until the present day). Still, religion has long been gone from the heart of education, from the understanding of life and the world conveyed in textbooks and the curriculum.

The trend of the times seemed clear. By the end of the nineteenth century prophecies of the eventual, if not imminent demise of religion were commonplace among intellectuals.
 
 

Of course it never happened. Indeed, by at least some measures, religion has held its own nicely over the course of the century. Ninety percent of Americans continue to claim to believe in God and church membership may actually have increased over the course of the century. We shouldn’t be unduly impressed with such statistics, however. Much belief is nominal; it is what one tells a pollster and has little to do with how one understands the world or lives one’s life; and we all know that membership in a congregation may be prompted by many motives, not all of them religious.

I am more interested, at least for my purposes here, in how religion has responded to the challenge of modernity—the challenge of modern science and social ideologies. Let me map three general (if overlapping) responses to give us some sense of the lay of the land.

1. A few years ago, the historian Mark Noll published a book that created something of a stir called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal, Noll suggested, is that there isn’t an evangelical mind. (I should say that Noll is himself an evangelical.) No doubt things are changing; there is a growing engagement with modern ideas among evangelical theologians, but there has certainly also been a powerful current of anti-intellectualism that has run through fundamentalist, charismatic, and evangelical churches, whose position has been one of retrenchment before the onslaught of modernity and the reassertion of doctrinal orthodoxies.

2. The second religious response to modernity has been a liberal response that has led to a sometimes radical rethinking and reformation of Christian and Jewish traditions in the light of modern science and social movements. Liberal theologians were quick to accept evolution and modern science; they have used secular historical scholarship to rethink the claims and authority of the Bible; and they have drawn on various secular ideologies—liberal, feminist, Marxist, liberationist, postmodernist--to shape a new theology for the churches.

3. Liberals, as I am defining them, want to keep the faith—even while they renegotiate boundaries and reform their traditions, and in this they are more conservative than the adherents of the new spirituality, my third category of responses to modernity. Of course, traditional religions have always had a spiritual dimension. What distinguishes the new spirituality is first, that it has refused to be confined within the institutional structures of traditional religion, which its adherents typically view as authoritarian and confining. The new spirituality is deeply individualistic. And, second, it is profoundly eclectic, drawing on a wide range of both religious and secular resources in seeking new and deeper forms of meaning: Eastern religions, myth, meditation, humanistic and Jungian psychology and various kinds of therapy, holistic healing, new developments in cosmology, deep ecology, left-right brain research, shamanism, feminism and goddess religion, the self-help movement, and, at least on its ill-defined borders, astrology, channeling, reincarnation, witchcraft and neopaganism. One of the reasons the new spirituality is to exciting and so frustrating is that it blurs the traditional boundaries between the sacred and the secular.

There should be no surprise that spirituality in America is changing as we move from being a nation of communities to a nation of commuters: faith is no longer something people inherit but something which they seek

Because the new spirituality is so diffuse, so individualistic and so anti-institutional, there is no way to count its adherents. What is clear is that the language of spirituality has become increasingly pervasive, infiltrating and influencing most domains of contemporary culture.

There are two morals I wish to draw from my brief, simplistic typology of responses to modernity. First, religion isn’t moribund; there is, in our culture, a lively on-going conversation about the nature of religion and spirituality and their relationship to the dominant ideas and ideals of modernity. Second, we would be wise to beware of the usual culture wars rhetoric that suggests there are only two combatants: traditional religion (often portrayed in the guise of the Religious Right), and the forces of Enlightenment, which typically take a secular form. The situation is much messier—and more exciting.

Now one might naively think that given the importance of what is at issue, and the vitality of the cultural conversation, students should learn something about it. Over the last few years I’ve reviewed eighty-two high school textbooks in a variety of subjects—history, economics, home economics, literature, health, and the sciences--for their treatment of religion. I’ve also read the national K-12 content standards that have been developed over the last decade by thousands of scholars, teachers, and representatives of professional organizations. I want to say something, however brief, about the extent to which the religious voices in our cultural conversation make it into the texts and standards. To keep my discussion manageable I will comment only on texts and standards in two areas of the curriculum—the sciences and economics—but the problems we find here cut across the curriculum. (I realize, of course, that there are many good teachers who don’t just teach the texts or follow the standards blindly.)

Science. The continuing controversy over evolution and creationism provides a wonderful example of how the politics of our culture wars simplify and distort a rich cultural conversation. As it is usually portrayed, the conflict is one between fundamentalists (who read Genesis 1 to mean that God created humankind, and perhaps all of nature, in six days) and all the rest of us reasonable folk who accept evolution. But it is not so simple.

Yes, religious liberals have accepted evolution pretty much from the beginning (that is to say, from Darwin on), but many of them have wanted to hang on to the idea that evolution is purposeful and that nature has a spiritual dimension to it. Of course, the biology texts don't teach that evolution has a purpose. Instead, they teach the "neo-Darwinian" synthesis of modern genetics with Darwinism, according to which evolution is the product of natural selection acting on the random mutation and recombination of genes.

It is tremendously important to understand that the radical thrust of Darwin's theory in his own day, and of neo-Darwinism in ours, is not just that they conflict with a literal reading of Genesis, but that it stands in tension with all religious conceptions of design and purpose in nature. Darwin was himself clear that evolution is not purposeful: there is no more design to be found in nature, he wrote in his Autobiography, than in the course which the wind blows.

Now what are the religious responses to all of this? There are, of course, the fundamentalists who deny that evolution happened at all, given their reading of Genesis. There are liberals who argue for a "two worlds" view in which science and religion are about different and incommensurable domains of reality; they are conceptual apples and oranges. Science is about mechanics; religion is about meaning, and we shouldn’t confuse them.

Other liberals have tried to integrate science and religion, evolution and theology. Some argue that neo-Darwinism provides only a partial explanation of origins; there is purpose in evolution, it is just that scientific method is too restrictive to allow scientists to consider all the relevant evidence. Catholic theology sees a providential God behind the "secondary" causes of evolution, and insists that science cannot account for the development of animals into persons (with souls). Process theologians and some feminist theologians argue for an immanent or incarnate God embodied in the workings of nature, who directs evolution from within.

And there are some scientists who argue for "intelligent design theory," holding that God—or at least a cosmic designer--is the best scientific explanation for complex interrelated developments in evolution—in cellular biology, or in the origins of DNA, for example.

That is, not all opposition to neo-Darwinism comes from fundamentalists. Some of it comes from mainline and liberal theologians and dissident scientists. Of course, the biology texts and the National Science Education Standards ignore not only fundamentalist creationism; they also ignore these more liberal religious ways of interpreting biological evolution.

There is also considerable speculation among scientists, theologians, and philosophers, about cosmic evolution, for there now appears to be impressive evidence that the universe was fine-tuned to produce life. Life is extraordinarily complicated and improbable, and if the Big Bang had been different in only the smallest degree—and I mean the very smallest degree--the universe would have lifeless. Yet (need I say it?) there is life. Arguably, this outcome was, in some way, programmed in from the beginning, and God seems the most reasonable explanation for this--or so it is often argued nowadays. The physics texts and the Science Standards are silent about all of this.

Perhaps most striking, there is now a truly vast religious literature on the environment that cuts across theological traditions and the spirituality movement. Some of this literature argues for the virtue of stewardship, often on Biblical grounds. But much ecotheology, process theology, and creation spirituality goes further, claiming that modern science misconceives nature as inert matter, and theology misconceives God as wholly transcendent. Instead, God acts in and through the processes of nature, which are reconceived as sacred or spiritual. (I should note that Eastern and Native American religions have been particularly influential in shaping a more spiritual view of nature.) Neither the science texts nor the standards address religious interpretations of nature or the environmental crisis.

There are other points of intersection between science and religion regarding spirituality and healing; the ethics of genetic engineering; chaos theory and divine causality; quantum mechanics and free will; evolutionary psychology and morality; the origins of life; conceptions of sexuality, and on and on. But enough. I trust it is clear that there is a lively, on-going discussion among intellectuals in our culture about the relationship of science and religion.

The nature of this relationship wasn’t settled with the Scopes Trial. In fact, in the last year Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and The New Republic have all run cover stories on science and religion, each exploring a growing sense among intellectuals that nature may be open to, or require, religious interpretation. Theologians quite properly use scientific insight to shape their theological convictions about nature, and scientists—at least those working at the level of basic theory—are often drawn into theological reflection.

What can we conclude? The Standards and the texts ignore one of the most momentous questions of modern intellectual and cultural history. The implicit message is that science is fully adequate for giving a complete account of nature. God clearly doesn't measure up to scientific standards, and religious interpretations of nature are, in effect, condemned to irrelevance.

Economics. The scriptures in all religious traditions address the economic domain of life—matters of wealth and poverty, work and stewardship, justice and human nature. There is also a vast theological literature of the last century dealing with economics. Within Christianity, for example, this literature ranges from Pope Leo XIII’s seminal 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, through the Protestant Social Gospel, to Reinhold Neibuhr’s Christian Realism, liberation theology, and Pope John Paul II’s recent encyclical Centismus Annus. Most mainline Christian denominations and ecumenical organizations have official statements addressing economic issues.

Central to scripture and this recent theological literature is the claim that we must employ moral and religious categories to understand the economic domain of life. As the American Catholic Bishops put it in their1986 statement on the economy, we must guard against a "tragic separation" between religion and our economic life. People cannot "'immerse [them]selves in earthly activities as if [they] were utterly foreign to religion, and religion were nothing more than the fulfillment of acts of worship and the observance of a few moral obligations." Indeed, economists, like all of us, must realize that "human dignity, realized in community with others and with the whole of God's creation, is the norm against which every social institution is measured."

How seriously do economics texts take religion? In the 4,400 pages of the ten economics texts I reviewed all of the references to religion add up to two pages--and all the references are to distant history. There are no references to religious ways of understanding economics in the forty-seven pages of the new National Content Standards in Economics.

Neither the texts nor the Standards address poverty as a moral or spiritual problem—a major concern of the liberation theology. They are silent about the relationship of the First World to the Third World (the idea of a jubilee year and the forgiveness of Third World debt is not to be found in them). They ignore the effect of economics and technology on the environment that is so much a concern within the spirituality movement. They are oblivious to the moral problems of a consumer culture. They ask no questions about dehumanizing work. They emphasize the importance of the profit motive and competition while saying nothing about the possibility of excess profits or the possible costs of competition. They never appeal to the dignity of people, the sacredness of nature, or obligations to any larger community (or to God).

The problem isn’t just what’s left out, however, it’s also what’s included. The texts and national standards teach neo-classical economic theory. Economics is a "value-free" science and the economic world can be defined in terms of the competition of self-interested individuals with unlimited wants for scarce resources. Values are subjective, personal preferences. Decisions should be made according to cost-benefit analyses that maximize whatever it is that we value and that leave no room in the equation for duties, the Sacred, or those dimensions of life that aren't quantifiable. Economics is one thing, religion, quite clearly, is another.

And what happens when we divorce economics and religion? The sociologist Robert Wuthnow reports that when "asked if their religious beliefs had influenced their choice of a career, most of the people I have interviewed in recent years--Christians and non-Christians alike—said no. Asked if they thought of their work as a calling, most said no. Asked if they understood the concept of stewardship, most said no. Asked how religion did influence their work lives or thoughts about money, most said the two were completely separate."

There can be little doubt but that the way we teach economics contributes to the growing secularization and de-moralization of our economic life. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to reconcile the understanding of human nature, values, and economics found in the texts and the national standards with that of any religious tradition.

So should we teach students about alternatives to neo-classical theory? The National Standards provide a clear answer: students should be taught only the "majority paradigm" or "neo-classical model" of economic behavior, for to include "strongly held minority views of economic processes risks confusing and frustrating teachers and students who are then left with the responsibility of sorting the qualifications and alternatives without a sufficient foundation to do so." We certainly don’t want to confuse teachers or students with alternatives.

I could go on to other areas of the curriculum—but won’t. Let me just say that health and sex education and home economics texts and curricula avoid any discussion of religious ways of thinking about sexuality, marriage, abortion and homosexuality. While some literature anthologies are organized chronologically and include historical religious literature, most literature anthologies include only recent secular literature. Civics textbooks discuss government and law and rights and justice without any discussion of religion. The growing character education movement in public education bends over backwards to avoid any reference to religion in nurturing virtues and moral values. Again, enough.
 
 

My question now is this: what obligation do educators have to include religious voices in the curricular conversation not just as cultural artifacts in the study of history, but because religion should be taken seriously by students in thinking about how to make sense of the world and how to live their lives?

Let me put it this way. There are a variety of ways of making sense of the world. Many of us accept one or another religious interpretation; others of us accept one or another secular interpretation. We don’t agree—and the differences among us often cut deep. And yet public schools systematically teach students to think about the world in secular ways only. They don’t even bother to inform students that there are religious alternatives—apart from distant history.

To be sure, educators aren’t explicitly hostile to religion; they don’t overtly attack religious practices or theology. But in some ways ignoring religion is worse than explicit hostility, for students remain unaware of the fact that there may be tensions and conflicts between their religious traditions and what they are taught about science or economics, morality or sexuality, psychology or history. By eliminating the awareness of religious possibilities education makes religious accounts of the world seem implausible, even inconceivable.

No doubt much of what students learn in their secular studies is compatible with religion. The problem lies less with the particulars, with the "facts" that they are taught, than with the philosophical assumptions, the governing worldview, that they are taught to use to interpret the various subjects of the curriculum.

In fact, it is misleading to talk about the subjects of the curriculum. Students don’t learn about subjects, which are open to contending interpretations. Rather, they are taught disciplines, particular—always secular—ways of thinking about their various "subjects." (So, for example, they are not taught about the subject of economics, which is open to various secular and religious interpretations, but the discipline of neo-classical economics theory.) And this is always done uncritically. It is assumed that secular ways of interpreting a subject are adequate for getting at the truth and meaning of it.

The cumulative effect of teaching students to think about everything they study in secular categories is that public education nurtures in them a secular mentality. Religion is intellectually compartmentalized and, therefore, marginalized—though this is almost always done implicitly (and often, no doubt, unintentionally). It is true, of course, that most students continue to believe in God. But God is apt to have little to do with how they think about the world or live their lives. After all, nothing they learn about history or literature or sexuality or morality or nature or psychology or economics hinges on God.

A properly liberal education should initiate students into an ongoing conversation in which representatives of various communities and traditions are allowed to contend with each other about how to make sense of the world and how to live their lives. It is, by its nature, comparative and critical. It is required if we are to live an examined life.

If contemporary religious voices did no more than echo faintly the writers and thinkers of long dead traditions there would be no obligation to listen to them—other, perhaps, than in the study of history. But, as I have argued, that is not the case; contemporary education fails to reflect anything of the intellectually lively conversations in our culture about religion and the various subjects of the curriculum. Unlike our cultural marketplace, the educational marketplace of ideas is an illiberal, tightly regulated marketplace.
 
 

And then there is the question of justice.

Consider an analogy. Until the last several decades textbooks and curricula routinely ignored women's history and minority literature. We are now (almost) all sensitive to the fact that this wasn't a benign neglect, but a form of discrimination, of educational disenfranchisement. Of course, the problem wasn't just that minority and women's history and literature were ignored; it was that sometimes conflicting, distinctively male, white, and Western ways of thinking and acting were taught, and uncritically at that.

There are, of course, good educational reasons for including multicultural voices in the curriculum, but there are also reasons of justice—particularly with regard to public education. As a civic society we ought to treat each other with a measure of respect, and this means that we must take each other—with our various ideas and ideals, traditions and sub-cultures—seriously.

Education has gone a long way towards addressing various multicultural agendas but, unfortunately, the multicultural movement has virtually ignored religion. And yet, few subcultures are so educationally disenfranchised now, as are religious subcultures.

It is striking to me how upset people can become over a once-in-a-lifetime nonsectarian graduation prayer, all the while remaining totally unconcerned about the ways in which the curriculum undermines the most basic beliefs and values of people in various religious traditions. There is a fundamental question of justice and oppression here.
 
 

Now it may come as a surprise to many, but we are also constitutionally required to include religious voices in public schools. It is, of course, uncontroversial that it is constitutionally permissible to teach about religion, when done properly. No Supreme Court justice has ever held otherwise. But there is a stronger argument to be made.

The Court has been clear that public education must be neutral in matters of religion--in two senses. It must be neutral among religions (it can’t favor Protestants over Catholics, or Christians over Jews or Buddhists); and it must be neutral between religion and nonreligion. Public schools can’t promote religion; they can’t proselytize; they can’t conduct religious exercises. But, of course, neutrality is a two-edged sword. Just as public education can’t favor religion over non-religion, neither can it favor nonreligion over religion. As Justice Hugo Black put it in the seminal 1947 Everson ruling, "State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them" Similarly, in his majority opinion in Abington v. Schempp (1963) Justice Tom Clark wrote for the Court that public schools can’t favor "those who believe in no religion over those who do believe" And in a concurring opinion, Justice Goldberg warned that an "untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality" can lead to a "pervasive devotion to the secular and a passive, or even active, hostility to the religious" Of course this is just what has happened. An "untutored" and naïve conception of neutrality has led to the prohibition of explicit hostility to religion, when the usual hostility has been philosophically rather more subtle--though no less substantial for that.

The purpose of the Establishment Clause should be to require what the legal scholar Douglas Laycock has called "substantive neutrality." Such neutrality requires government "to minimize the extent to which it either encourages or discourages religious belief or disbelief, practice or nonpractice, observance or nonobservance." Religion "should proceed as unaffected by government as possible." In regard to the curriculum, "government must be scrupulously even handed, treating the range of religious and nonreligious views as neutrally as possible."

The only way to be neutral when all ground is contested ground, is to be fair to the alternatives. That is, given the Court's longstanding interpretation of the Establishment Clause it is mandatory in public education to require the study of religion if students are required to study disciplines that cumulatively lead to a "pervasive devotion to the secular"--as they do. Of course, students must learn about a variety of religions; neutrality also means that public schools cannot promote or privilege a particular religion over others.
 
 

So how do we be neutral or fair? What would a truly liberal education look like?

Obviously a great deal depends on the age of students. In elementary schools students should learn something of the relatively uncontroversial aspects of different religions--their traditions, holidays, symbols, and a little about their histories, and we should begin, through stories and character education, to nurture an appreciation of the moral and spiritual dimensions of life. As students grow older and more mature they should be initiated into that sometimes unsettling conversation about truth and goodness that constitutes a good liberal education. Here a two-prong approach is required.

First, students should learn something about religious ways of thinking about any subject that is religiously controversial in the relevant courses.

The literary critic Gerald Graff has argued that the curriculum is separatist "with each subject and course being an island with little regular connection to other subjects and courses." It is important, he argues, "to bring heretofore excluded cultures into the curriculum, but unless they are put in dialogue with traditional courses, students will continue to struggle with a disconnected curriculum." Graff is not talking about religion here, but his argument applies nonetheless. Many of my students have no idea that there may be tensions and conflicts between their religious beliefs and practices and what they learn in studying economics or psychology or the sciences. Graff’s solution is to "teach the conflicts"—indeed, to use this as an organizing principle for a liberal education.

But we don’t teach the conflicts. We don’t initiate students into a curricular conversation about how to make sense of the world or the "subjects" they study so much as we give them a sequence of monologues, each conducted in isolation from the others. And, of course, it is highly unlikely there will be any religious voices among the monologues.

A biology text should include a chapter in which scientific ways of understanding nature are contrasted with various religious alternatives. Students should learn that the relationship of religion and science is controversial, and that while they will study what most biologists believe to be the truth about nature, not everyone agrees. Indeed, every text and course should provide students with historical and philosophical perspective on the subject at hand, establishing connections and tensions with other disciplines and domains of the culture—including religion.

I should say that this is not a "balanced-treatment" or "equal-time" requirement. Biology courses should continue to be biology courses and economics courses should continue to be economics courses. In any case, given their competence and training, biology and economics teachers are not likely to be prepared to deal with a variety of religious ways of approaching their subject. At most, they can provide a minimal fairness.

A robust fairness is possible only if students are required to study religious as well as secular ways of making sense of the world in some depth, in courses devoted to the study of religion.

Indeed, a good liberal education should require at least one year-long high school course in religious studies (with others courses, I would hope, available as electives). The primary goal of such a course should be to provide students with a sufficiently intensive exposure to a variety of religious ways of thinking and living to enable them to understand those religions, rather than simply know a few facts about them. Of course, such courses can’t be used to proselytize or promote a particular religion; they must be religiously neutral. But they should take religion seriously by presenting religious ideas and ideals as live alternatives for students to consider in shaping their thinking about the world and their lives. Such courses should present religions not just as traditions rooted in the distant past, but in their most intellectually and imaginatively compelling forms in the here and now. They should expose students to scriptural texts, but should also use contemporary primary sources that convey how contemporary theologians and writers within a variety of traditions think about those subjects in the curriculum--morality, sexuality, history, nature, psychology, and the economic world--that students will be taught to interpret in secular categories in their other courses.

Of course, if there are to be religion courses there must be teachers competent to teach them. Religious Studies must become a certifiable field in public education—and new courses must not be offered or required until competent teachers are available.

Indeed, all teachers must have a much clearer sense of how religion relates to the curriculum and, more particularly, to their respective subjects. Major reforms in teacher education are necessary—as is a new generation of textbooks sensitive to religion.
 
 

So, as we stand on the eve of the 21st century (or the eve of the eve of the 21st century) what are the prospects that religion will be taken seriously in the next century? My best guess? Well, before I give you the bad news, let me provide a little good news.

There has come to be over the last decade what might be called a "New Consensus" about the role of religion in public education. This consensus has been formally endorsed in a series of documents by a variety of religious, educational, and civil liberties groups at the national level. The gist of it is: 1) that it is constitutional to teach students about religion in public. 2) That religion must be approached neutrally; it cannot be the purpose of public schools to promote religion or proselytize. And 3) that is important that students learn about religion.

This is helpful, very helpful. Of course, word of this consensus at the national level hasn’t reached everyone in the trenches where our culture wars are often fought. As important, if there is agreement in principle on the legitimacy and importance of studying religion, in practice religion continues to be relegated almost entirely to the study of history and, as I’ve argued, that’s not good enough.

Well, that was the good news. The bad news? It will be an uphill battle all the way. 1. While some educators will agree that religion should be taken seriously, they argue that teachers aren’t prepared to do it right, and if it can’t be done right it is dangerous to try. This response is shared by many members of minority religious traditions who fear that talk of taking religion seriously simply opens the door to subtle, if not overt, proselytizing by teachers who, no matter how well intentioned, will inevitably convey to students their prejudices and ignorance of religious traditions other than their own.

This is a legitimate concern; hence the need for the major reforms in teacher education that I have already mentioned. But, of course those reforms aren’t on the agenda of the vast majority of schools of education.

2. Many educators find the whole idea of taking religion seriously to be much too controversial—though I think that they will shortsighted if they do. It is important to remember that it is also controversial to leave religion out of the curriculum. Indeed, because public schools don’t take religion seriously many religious parents have deserted them and, if the Supreme Court upholds vouchers, as they may well do, the exodus will be much greater.

In the long run, the least controversial position is the one that takes everyone seriously. If public schools are to survive our culture wars, they must be built on common ground. But there can be no common ground when religious voices are left out of the curricular conversation.

3. A greater problem is that no matter how religious they happen to be personally, most educators have little appreciation of the relevance of religion to the curriculum outside of history. This is in part, no doubt, because they themselves have been illiberally educated. They have been taught to compartmentalize their religious beliefs and values.

4. There is no respectable constituency for change. Consider an analogy. Several decades ago textbooks and curricula said little about women and minority cultures. Educators then were naïve about the need to include multicultural voices in the curriculum and, of course, multiculturalism has also proven controversial. Still, multicultural education is now commonplace. Things do change, and one might find hope in this.

Unlike the multicultural situation, however, there is no constituency pressing for the inclusion of religious voices in the curriculum—apart from the Religious Right, that is, and their support for inclusivity is the kiss of death for most educational and professional organizations. Perhaps my greatest disappointment in trying to make the case for taking religion seriously is an almost complete lack of support from mainline and liberal religious folk.

One reason for this is that our culture wars have led to tactical alliances between religious and secular liberals who wish to present a united front against those on the "Religious Right" who would make America into a Christian country and turn our schools into Christian schools. As James Davison Hunter has argued, the most important battle lines in our contemporary culture wars separate liberals from conservatives, not religious from secular folk. Too often, liberals uncritically accept "religion-free" schools as the only alternative to religious schools.

It is religious conservatives, of course, who are most critical of public schooling—and most likely to leave. But my argument is that public schooling doesn’t take any religion seriously; it marginalizes all religion—liberal as well as conservative, Catholic as well as Protestant, Jewish and Muslim and Buddhist as well as Christian. Indeed, it contributes a great deal to the secularization of American culture—and this should concern any religious person.

Having said this, I want to remind you, however, that my arguments for taking religion seriously are entirely secular arguments: a liberal education requires it; political justice requires it; and constitutional neutrality requires it. But absent a broad constituency pressing for change, no arguments of principal will carry the day.

5. Finally, and most important, for all that I have said about the vitality of contemporary religion and spirituality, modern science, technology, and capitalism are still in the cultural saddle, shaping our world. Religious movements are largely countercultural movements. And if postmodernism has deflated the pretensions of science and the Enlightenment project among many intellectuals in the academy, its influence outside the academy pales before the power of the master narratives of modern science and global capitalism. In such a world the educational agenda will almost inevitably be weighted in favor of basic skills, testing, computers, technology and economics—and there will be all too little time for religion (or the humanities more generally).

None of this is to say there isn’t hope, of course. Indeed, religion has a good deal to teach us about hope. And, no doubt, much can be accomplished locally, even if revisions in the master narratives of our time will continue to elude us for the foreseeable future. At the very least, we must keep in mind what the ideal is --and how far short of it we fall.

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