Religion in the Classroom


Daniel Sunkari

Ms. Jackson, a World Cultures teacher, keeps several statues of religious figures in her classroom.

Religion is one of the most powerful, influential and keystone forces in history. It has built and torn down nations, formed our laws and statutes, and changed the course of human existence in the most radical ways possible. It has brought millions of people together like nothing else. So many of the principles and values we cherish are derived from it. And yet, Vista and many other schools don’t have a course on it.

I don’t mean a world cultures or history class where one glances over a brief history of the major religions. I mean an in-depth study of the doctrines, cultural impact and history that each of them hold. As long as the teacher is unbiased and can efficiently teach these topics (as they do in classes regarding politics), it’s not an invite to classroom controversy.

It’s actually quite absurd not to study something that has been so critically important to humanity. Schools need to educate students on the major religions of the world, engaging in dialogue about their relevance, claims and truth.

Incredible dissension surrounds religion as a topic. It has its good and its bad. German-American theologian Paul Tillich sums it up in his book, “Theology of Culture”: “Religion opens up the depth of man’s spiritual life…It gives us the experience of the Holy, of the something which is untouchable, awe-inspiring, an ultimate meaning, the source of ultimate courage. This is the glory of what we call religion. But beside the glory lies its shame. It makes itself the ultimate and despises the secular realm. It makes myths and doctrines, its rites and laws into ultimates and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it. It forgets that its own existence is a result of man’s tragic estrangement from his true being.”

It isn’t surprising that non-religious worldviews dominate public classrooms and campuses. It’s only a logical result of a prized national principle: the separation of church and state. But this does not merit the absence of religious study. And without an implementation of it, our centers of education may actually act as breeding grounds for animosity towards religion. In fact, they may already have.

Intellectually, religion is often written off as mythology and folklore, especially in the classroom. But religion is land of immense investigation and debate among top scholars and universities. The intellectual cases for different religions are made, defended and are actually alive and well in today’s philosophical school of thought. It thrives in the metaphysical world, offering a basis for concepts like morality, meaning and hope. Centers for religious studies, apologetics, philosophy of religion, theology and several other programs exist in the world’s most prestigious universities. Is a class on world religions in high school too much to ask for?

Socially, religion may be thought of as an overly critical, judgemental force, ridding us of our liberties. But to what can we merit those liberties? The church acts as the single largest provider of healthcare and education in the world, especially among the forgotten and impoverished. And these same people stood for the oppressed and marginalized, pioneering the entire concept of social justice. Civil liberties, human rights, equality among gender, creed and ethnicity–these ideas we so preciously hold dear haven’t just fallen from the sky; they are rooted in something ancient–religion.

And of course, there is the misuse of religion throughout history. Religion is synonymous with the Crusades, Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials and a bevy of other ills. It’s true–religion has a terribly dark, checkered history. As a Christian, I cannot speak for all religions, and I believe some may continue to have deadly consequences. But St. Augustine’s words ring true: “Never judge a philosophy by its abuse.” I would also argue that religion’s counterpart–naturalism, or atheism–is hardly ever held to the same standard. It sits on a throne of claimed intellectual, rational supremacy–but in fact can have evidently dark ramifications.

In his famous declaration that “God is dead,” from “The Gay Science” (1882), German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made an interesting claim: if God was dead (philosophically speaking–in the heart and mind of modern man), then the 20th century would become the bloodiest century of history. And he was right. In fact, we may have exceeded Nietzsche’s expectations.

We killed more people in the 20th century than the previous 19 combined. The atheistic regimes of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Vladimir Lenin slaughtered more than 120 million people altogether. And the poster-boy for such evil, Adolf Hitler, eradicated another 6 million while championing this very piece of Nietzsche’s, upholding “God’s death” and asserting his own definition of a human being. Is this the fruit of our subjective moral reasoning and the eradication of the sacred? Is this what we have left when we eliminate any and all transcendence, leaving no holds barred?

So, the fact is simply that religion is not alone in the problems it has caused. And furthermore, many of said problems can be attributed not purely to religion itself, but its politicization, theocracy, and as St. Augustine pointed out, its abuse.

Without sufficient investigation into these beliefs and scriptures, students continue to develop false presumptions about religion, allowing the actions of extremists to solely define a set of beliefs.

So to the skeptic teacher, I say this: suppose that we are more than just matter + time + chance, doomed to extinction. Suppose that we are actually of intrinsic worth, meaning and purpose, rooted in something supernatural. And suppose that this mere blip of life–in all its pain and pleasure–isn’t nearly all there is to existence, and that the burden that future generations may have the opportunity to experience the rest of it lies on you, the educator.

I’m not asking for a Sunday school class at Vista, or for students to sit in a circle and discuss their spiritual lives. I’m not asking for indoctrination of any sort, or even debate over which religions are right or good. I’m asking for the emergence of a generation that will look at these world views–not through windows thick with the fog of prejudiced secularism–but with tolerance, respect and understanding of the significance, value and impact that these views have had throughout history, around the world and in our everyday lives.

You need not blend the spiritual with the secular, but when you breed ignorance towards one or the other, it spells danger.