Why Religion Belongs in the Classroom — and How to Teach It Sensibly

Religion has been one of the most significant social forces throughout human history. People have used it to make peace, care for the vulnerable, and spread love. They’ve also used it to start wars, spread hate, and kill. None of this is new or limited to modern times. Indeed, the constant presence of religion in most societies requires that our students gain more than a rudimentary understanding of religion and its relationship with culture.
Most students learn about religion in history classes. They study religious origins and myths, core beliefs and practices, important leaders and events, and the peaceful and violent interactions between religions. What those lessons tend to leave out, however, is that religions vary greatly per culture. Thus, students often walk away from history lessons — even World Religions classes — making sweeping generalizations about Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, among others. Many think, “Well, these are the Five Pillars of Islam, so all Muslims believe these Five Pillars.” But it’s not that simple — and our students need to know that.
I propose that all students learn to see religions as fluid, diverse, and ever-changing, especially as they interact with different cultures. This is not a novel approach. Indeed, when I taught an Intro to Religion course at Ball State University as an assistant professor from 2008-11, my colleagues convinced me why this is the most effective approach: when students recognize that religions vary per culture, they are much less likely to make assumptions about religions and religious adherents, and this reduces stereotyping and misconceptions because they are more informed.
Although I don’t have empirical data that supports this notion specifically, there is plenty of anecdotal and theoretical support. For example, we know the dangers of assuming all Chinese Americans or Hispanic Americans are the same just because of their heritage. They vary greatly based on where they are raised, their parents, their education, and many other factors. The same is true for religious groups. This is what I teach my students.

From the outside, The Great Mosque of Xian, a Muslim mosque in Xian, China, looks like a Buddhist, Confucian, or Taoist temple because of the tiled, curved roofs. The adherents we saw as they left after prayers wore clothes commonly worn in China but caps (taqiyah) like other Muslims around the world. Photo credits: Michael Roemer

Inside My “Religion in Culture” Class

Yonghe Temple is a Buddhist temple in Beijing, China.

For the past two years, I have been teaching a Religion in Culture elective course for 10th -12th graders at Trinity Valley School, an independent K-12 coed, college prep school in Fort Worth, TX. From the start, I explain to my students that one of the goals of the course is to recognize that culture plays a vital role in how religions are manifested throughout the world. I’ve designed the class to give students enough information to think about and discuss “religion” in general and a few influential, global religions, to recognize commonalities and differences between them, and to equip students with skills to research more about religions now and in the future.

This is a departure from many learning experiences in which students are given finite answers (2+3 = 5; O = Oxygen; World War II ended in 1945, etc.). However, I believe that it’s never too early to help them understand that some concepts, like religion, vary so widely across cultures that to provide a fixed definition is too broad, too narrow, or too ethnocentric, as Rodrigues and Harding make clear in their book, Introduction to the Study of Religion. If students walk away from a religion class with a static definition, then I have not properly prepared them for how religions function in the real world.
From day one, I have students read and discuss what constitutes “religion,” based on scholarly research as well as how various “religious” people explain it. I typically devote a couple of weeks to this discussion. Often, I find that two things happen: students see just how complicated and diverse “religion” is, and they become confused. Both are perfectly acceptable outcomes.
Of course, I do discuss major historical, theological, scriptural, and behavioral aspects common to Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, but I do not go into too much detail for three reasons:

1. There isn’t enough time in one semester to cover all the details of one religion, much less five. (This sounds like an excuse, but it actually recognizes what we can do well in the time we have.)

2. When I pile on too many details, I find it is more difficult for students to recognize the very focus of the class: that every religion varies depending on its cultural context. In other words, the more I teach them the details of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, the more they begin to assume that all Buddhists know these and that they are central for all Buddhists. But that is not the case.

3. I want students to learn how to learn about religions on their own with “high-quality” sources, so we find them together and independently. Each student selects a topic for a deep-learning project, embarks on research, then writes and presents about it. For instance, last year a student cited anthropological studies of religion to argue that Hinduism is more of a “philosophy” than a “religion.” Another relied on psychology to exemplify how people use religion as a coping mechanism and to find purpose in their lives.

Five Things I Recommend

Based on my experience in both high school and higher ed, I outline five ways to bring religion into the classroom in non-religious and religious schools.
1. Require students to study religion in context — not just in history or tangentially in literature. Whether or not we ourselves identify as “religious,” we can all recognize how religions around us affect our daily lives — from our moral decisions to our school holiday calendar. This requires talking with students about the various characteristics of “religions” (e.g., practices and beliefs) and what makes someone “religious” (e.g., how they self-identify or how others label them).
2. Help students see that religions change — sometimes drastically — depending on where they are. For example, in my class, a female Muslim student explained that, although her relatives in Pakistan wear headscarves daily, growing up in Texas, she, her sister, and her mother do not wear head coverings except in a few cases: going to a mosque, visiting family in Pakistan, and when her family made a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. She values modesty like her cousins but doesn’t express that through headscarves. This example helped my students recognize the role of culture on religion in a tangible way.

Sultanahmet Camii, aka The Blue Mosque, in Istanbul, Turkey.

3. Help students get comfortable with “working definitions” by having your class work together to generate a list of characteristics of “religion.” Return to that list throughout the course to amend it.
4. Take time to explore the diversity of religiousness per culture. For instance, rather than end a unit on Buddhism that describes the Eightfold Path and the goal of nirvana, explore how Buddhists in Japan have adapted these ideas to fit their culture. I like to use Japan as an example because it’s the region of the world I’ve studied the most, and Japanese Buddhist priests are far from conventional because, for generations, they have consumed alcohol, they marry, and they eat meat. Most Buddhist priests across the world have abstained from all three, but that does not make Japanese any less “Buddhist” than a vegan monk living in isolation in Nepal. 

Sensoji, an ancient Buddhist temple, in Tokyo, Japan.

5. For those who teach at religiously-affiliated schools, my suggestion is the same. Introduce students to the variations within the school’s religion, and explain that all other religions vary per culture as well. It will help students integrate into the religiously diverse world they will soon lead with a clearer (more honest) understanding of the inseparable connection between religion and culture. Refer to the many academic resources by anthropologists, critical studies scholars, historians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, etc. that present unbiased, peer-reviewed explanations of religions and the religious.

Essential Challenge: Accepting Ambiguity

This multipronged approach to teaching religion is not simple, I know. As a teacher and as a student, it can be difficult to accept that religion cannot be defined simply. It’s harder to help students understand that a lack of clarity is normal and that they won’t walk away from the class with a nicely packaged understanding of “religion” or any specific religion. Instead, you will leave them with questions — and maybe even a little confused.
If you start the course by telling students that they are likely to feel a little puzzled at the end, however, you can help them accept this ambiguity. Most importantly, you will prepare them for the real world — one where things aren’t predictable, great questions can lead to deep understandings, and religions vary substantially per culture.
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Michael Roemer

Michael K. Roemer is director of global initiatives at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, TX.