Teaching World Religions at an Independent School

Fall 2015

By Erskine White, M.Div., Ed.D

Religious conflict will be less a matter of struggles between belief and unbelief than of clashes between believers who make room for doubt and those who do not. — Mark C. Taylor1

When I ask students why they signed up for my World Religions elective class, they offer a variety of reasons. Some want to learn more about their own faith traditions; others want to learn more about other faith traditions (Islam is often cited here because students realize that what they are “learning” about Islam through the media is badly skewed); still others consider themselves agnostics or atheists but enjoy thinking about the large questions a good religions class will raise. And many students realize that learning more about the world’s religions is becoming indispensable to understanding the dynamics and conflicts of the 21st century world. 

You can’t teach about religions over a long period of time without a significant evolution in what you think, what you believe, and what you teach. It can be a tricky business. Teachers of World Religions courses must never be seen as undermining students’ belief in the faith traditions in which they were raised. At the same time, exposing students to the highest, best aspects of these various faith traditions can lead them to question some of the beliefs and practices they see in organized religions today, including their own. What follows is some of what I’ve learned in 20 years of trying to teach this course with integrity toward both the subject matter and my students.2 

The first thing to be said about teaching World Religions is: Don’t spend much time on religious history. Though this course may be situated in a History or Social Studies Department curriculum, don’t focus on what organized religions have actually done in history. To do so would mean a lot of talk about divinely ordained violence, manipulative superstitions, lethal misogyny, and centuries of scandals from caliphal assassinations to pedophilic priests. This will only dismay the conscience of sensitive students or even turn them off religion altogether. And don’t spend much time teaching the institutional character or structure of world religions for much the same reason. From the over-the-top materialism of religious sites and prominent evangelists to cozy relationships religious hierarchies have had with repressive regimes around the world to institutional self-interests that divert believers from their own spiritual journeys, sensitive students can become alienated from organized religions when they perceive too great a gap between word and deed, between authenticity and hypocrisy. 

Finally, be sure to teach more than the various liturgies, rituals, and observances religious believers practice. Yes, it’s important for students to know why the Hindu family in their neighborhood constructed an altar in their home or what Catholicism teaches about the Eucharist. This is especially important when teaching Judaism and Islam, which do a particularly good job of transmitting their faith to the next generations through numerous family observances and celebrations throughout the year. But although all of these practices can contain interior elements if done maturely, they remain at some level external, visible dimensions of religious faith. Helping students better understand world religions means looking for something deeper. 

The way I do that is to examine with students how each religion answers four basic questions: creation (Where do we come from?), theodicy (If God is good, why is there evil in the world?), ethics (How ought we to live?), and destiny (What happens after we die?). The “textbooks” I use to do this are the sacred scriptures as well as some noncanonical texts from the various faiths, presented both from an anthology of world scripture excerpts and separate handouts I select on my own.3

Needless to say, this curriculum doesn’t fit well with traditional assessments. I do give a vocabulary quiz near the start of each unit because we need a common lexicon for each religion we study, but with most of my regular homework assignments coming from scriptural texts, it’s best to relinquish familiar summarizing or question-answering in favor of something more meditative. In my case, I ask students to read the text, think about it for 20 minutes, and then write one or two thoughtful, discussable, open-ended non-“right-or-wrong” questions. It takes a while to get beyond factual “yes-or-no” queries, but soon enough they are writing interesting questions that often can be used in class the next day in place of what I was going to do. Because they submit these assignments into an online “drop box,” I can look them over before class and perhaps pick some for class discussion.

The major assessments for this course are six detailed concept map-type charts (replacing traditional tests) that depict how each religion answers the four questions and 12 reflective journals on various assigned and student-selected topics. These should include the more challenging concepts each religion has to offer — Hinduism’s ahimsa (non-injury), Buddhism’s anatta (no self/soul), and Christianity’s Sermon on the Mount are three good examples. The hard part for students writing journals is to offer original reflections on larger questions, not write down the “correct answer” (what the concepts mean) when there is no one “right answer.” 

The culminating activity for each religion comes on the days students’ charts and journals are due. We all sit in a circle on the floor, and the students carry on a conversation about what they learned, what they wrote about in their journals, what they liked and didn’t like about the religion we studied, and so on. After one or two such classes, I am able to remain silent; they conduct a conversation on their own for the full class period. At the end of these classes, students almost always remark on how much they learned, and I get to tell them how wonderful and gratifying it is to see a group of 17-year-olds hold a mature, meaningful conversation about such large, transcendent ideas completely on their own. I love the idea that I do my best teaching by not saying a word.

Part of the challenge of getting students toward a deeper understanding of the world’s major religions is helping them see that both Eastern and Western ways of thinking underlie their respective religions and are profoundly different. One way I enjoy doing this, as an introduction to Daoism, is to hold up for the class an empty coffee cup and ask students to name the most important part of the cup. Typically, they debate the sides, the base, the handle … as Westerners, we see the tangible and material as what is real. A Daoist answer would be “the empty space inside.” What cannot be seen is actually more real than the illusory world that can be seen. It’s a fascinating new layer of diversity for students to encounter — diversity in thought, in understanding what is real.

Indeed, diversity and multiculturalism should underlie virtually every class period throughout the semester. To broaden the number and range of “voices” students hear besides my own, I frequently use short 3- to 10-minute videos drawn from YouTube and elsewhere. These might show highlights of a Muslim wedding in London, a Taiwanese bhikkuni (Buddhist nun) describing her Mother Theresa-like mission, or an Orthodox rabbi on Long Island explaining his take on the meaning of a Seder meal.

But the outside voices students always respond to most enthusiastically are the guest speakers who visit my classroom and serve as tour guides at their houses of worship. These are parents of former students or people I’ve met through them. Representing each religion we study, they can share themselves effectively with students and are open-hearted to faiths other than their own. Some have been doing this with me for 20 years, others for just five or six, but you find the best ones over time, and they become, at least for me, a community of friends and co-teachers. For their part, my students love the novelty of seeing new faces teaching the class, but these co-teachers are also clearly and unostentatiously spiritually grounded human beings. They show the best of what religion can look like in our local community, and students, be they religious or not, pick up on that.

Maybe the most important part of teaching a World Religions course is for the teacher to be clear on who he or she is and what he or she is doing — understanding the ethics of teaching a course on religions, if you will. Each major world religion contains some core genius, some font of meaning and wisdom that satisfies deep human needs. This explains, in part, why these religions have lasted so long. In a class genuinely studying world religions, the teacher’s job is to present that timeless essential core for each religion with equal respect, energy, and conviction.

The teacher is not an evangelist to students in a World Religions class. The teacher’s job is not to persuade students to one religious viewpoint or another or even to persuade students to a religious worldview as opposed to a nonreligious one. The substance and goals of this course should be different from youth education programs in church, temple, synagogue, or mosque.

To borrow a phrase from Christian scripture, teachers of World Religions class are “in but not of” the religions they teach. You are “in” the religions you teach because you speak from within the language and faith perspective of each religion. Terms like God, goddess, creation, soul, reincarnation, and so on are natural parts of your lexicon. You are not presenting yourself as the “objective” social scientist, an “outsider” observing a social phenomenon called “religion” — that’s for a sociology class.

At the same time, you are “not of” the religions you teach. You aren’t teaching any one religion as if it were the only one out there, the only claim on truth. Throughout the course you are identifying similarities and contrasts among the religions. You don’t say, “Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead” or “The Prophet was taken on a Night Journey to Jerusalem and heaven” as if these were statements of fact. These are statements of belief, so you more appropriately say: “Christian scripture says Jesus raised Lazarus” or “Muslims believe Muhammad was taken on a Night Journey.” You are neither denying the actuality of these events nor making them into universally accepted beliefs — you are simply saying what is true: “Christian texts say …” and “Muslims believe …”

Being “in but not of” these religions also means neither denying nor avoiding the problems to be found in their scriptures. Students will notice that avoidance and not respect it. The fact is that sacred texts from most major faith traditions contain passages that offend modern moral sensibilities. God really told “His” followers to utterly destroy their enemies, slaughtering every man, woman, child, and animal? God really created one gender to be by nature inferior and subordinate to the other? God is really okay with slavery? The Universal, Eternal One who made all things seen and unseen really likes one nation, one people, or one particular dogma or creed the best?

Teaching in an academic (as opposed to a faith-based) setting may not be moral suasion, but it is a moral enterprise. In this case, and given all the divisiveness, ignorance, intolerance, and even violence perpetrated by religiously motivated people today, a World Religions course faces some obligation to teach an ethical God and ethical religion. Religion is good for good people and bad for bad people. I should think we want our students to grasp the difference.

Being a citizen who is religious in today’s world should mean putting a primary value not on certainty but on spiritual humility. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”4 This is the problem with bad religion today, be it fundamentalist or otherwise — people make God small enough to suit their own purposes and then ascribe universal validity to the little god they’ve made. It’s an unconscious idolatry, and they’ve shrunk their scriptures in the same way. The world we train our students for needs good religion, and it needs believers in every religion with enough consciousness to include a new principle in their core creed, namely: “There are many diverse paths to God besides my own because the Infinite One is far too vast and mysterious for human comprehension.”

It’s a spiritual message that is neither liberal nor conservative; nor does it affirm or critique any one religion. The point is larger and deeper than any of that, and when it’s time to make it, I like to do so without really saying very much. I show students successive pictures of Earth taken from space — from the Apollo moon mission pictures where our planet is a large blue jewel against the black backdrop of space to photographs taken by Voyager 1 from 11 billion miles away, where Earth is a tiny white dot barely discernible amid a solar system that itself is but a miniscule part of the universe.

There are beautiful, similar expressions in other religious texts, but the Judeo-Christian scripture offers a summation well-known in the Western world of what good religion means: “He has told you what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Tanakh, Micah 6:8). If students come away from their World Religions course taking this to heart, that’s a pretty good pedagogical outcome.


1. Mark C. Taylor, “The Devoted Student,” New York Times, December 21, 2006.   

2. I teach this course at a secular independent school, but with careful planning, negotiation, and institutional support, the central goals and methods of the World Religions class described here can be made compatible with other independent schools that are identified with various religions or denominations.   

3. The basic texts I use are excerpts from the Rg Veda, Upanishads, Sri Ramakrishna and the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism); the Dhammapada, Zen koans, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Buddhism); the Analects of Confucius, Mencius, Xunxi, and the Dao de Jing (Chinese Religions/Philosophies); the Tanakh and Mishnah (Judaism); the New Testament and Gnostic gospels (Christianity); and the Qur’an and Hadith Qudsi (Islam). Other sacred texts are also used, including some from “other” religions such as Wicca and Native American traditions as well as an occasional article on topics of interest, e.g., Buddhism and modern science.   

4. Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999). 

Erskine White, M.Div., Ed.D

Erskine White, M.Div., Ed.D. ([email protected]), teaches American History, Comparative Religions, Ethics, Western Civilization, and Understanding the Middle East at the University School of Nashville.