Teaching about religion

September 16, 2002

Knowledge about religions is not only a characteristic of an educated person, but it is also absolutely necessary for understanding and living in a world of diversity. Knowledge of religious differences and the role of religion in the contemporary world can help promote understanding and alleviate prejudice. Since the purpose of the social studies is to provide students with a knowledge of the world that has been, the world that is, and the world of the future, studying about religions should be an essential part of the social studies curriculum. Omitting study about religions gives students the impression that religions have not been and are not now part of the human experience. Study about religions may be dealt with in special courses and units or wherever and whenever knowledge of the religious dimension of human history and culture is needed for a balanced and comprehensive understanding.

— from the “Position Statement and Guidelines of the National Council for the Social Studies”

Growing numbers of educators throughout the United States recognize that study about religion in social studies, literature, art and music is an essential part of a complete public school education. States and school districts are issuing new mandates and guidelines for the inclusion of teaching about religion in the curriculum. As a result, textbooks are expanding discussions of religion’s role in history and culture, and many new supplementary materials concerning religion in history are being developed.

In light of this national trend to include more about religion in the curriculum, the question for teachers is no longer “Should I teach about religion?,” but rather, “What should I teach, and how should I do it?” This essay is designed to provide the civic and academic framework for answering the questions of “what” and “how.” The aim of the guidelines and suggestions that follow is to help classroom teachers meet the challenges of teaching about religion in ways that are constitutionally permissible, educationally sound and sensitive to the beliefs of students and parents.

Why study about religion is important

Teaching about religion is important and necessary if public schools are to provide students with a complete education. Much of history, art, music, literature and contemporary life is unintelligible without an understanding of the major religious ideas and influences that have shaped history and culture throughout the world. Even teaching religious liberty, the civic foundation that sustains the United States as one nation of many faiths, requires teaching about the role of religion in history and culture. A recent report by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development described the place of religion in the curriculum:

“The proper role of religion in the school is the study of religion for its educational value. The task is to teach about religions and their impact in history, literature, art, music, and morality. It seems natural that the art curriculum, for example, must pay attention to the impact of Christianity on the work of Michelangelo, just as a history class focusing on the colonization of America must pay attention to the religious upheaval in sixteenth-century Europe that fueled that colonization.”

Understanding the role religion plays in history and culture is of special importance in our increasingly diverse society. Expanding religious pluralism in the United States confronts our schools and our nation with unprecedented challenges. America has shifted from the largely Protestant pluralism of the 18th century to a pluralism that now includes people of all faiths and a growing number of people who indicate no religious preference. New populations of Muslims, Buddhists and many other religious and ethnic groups are entering schools throughout the nation.

If we are to live with our differences, we must attempt through education to replace stereotypes and prejudices with understanding and respect. Students need to recognize that religious and philosophical beliefs and practices are of deep significance to much of our citizenry. Omission of discussion about the religious and philosophical roots of developments in history can give students the false impression that the religious and ethical traditions of humankind are insignificant or unimportant.

A civic framework for teaching about religion

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …

The religious-liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution provide the civic framework for teaching about religion in the public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to mean that public schools may neither promote nor inhibit religious belief or nonbelief. The public school curriculum may not, therefore, include religious indoctrination in any form (including hostility to religions or religion in general). Such teaching would constitute state sponsorship of religion and would violate the freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment.

Religious indoctrination, however, is not the same as teaching about religion. In the 1960s school-prayer cases (that prompted rulings against state-sponsored school prayer and devotional Bible-reading), the Supreme Court indicated that public school education may include teaching about religion. In Abington v. Schempp (1963), the Court stated:

“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

All public school teachers must have a clear understanding of the crucial difference between the teaching of religion (religious education) and teaching about religion. In 1988, a broad coalition of 17 religious and educational organizations published guidelines that distinguish between teaching about religion and religious indoctrination. The guidelines state, in part:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
  • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • The school exposes students to a diversity of religious views; it does notimpose any particular view.
  • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrateany religion.
  • The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek toconform students to any particular belief.

In addition to these baseline distinctions, the religious-liberty clauses provide guiding principles for how teaching about religion may best be carried out in the classroom. Charles Haynes, the First Amendment Center’s senior scholar, calls these principles the civic values at the heart of American citizenship: “They are so fundamental and enduring that they may be called the ‘Three Rs’ of religious liberty”:


Religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is a basic and inalienable right founded on the inviolable dignity of the person. In a society as religiously diverse as the United States, it is essential that schools emphasize that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are for citizens of all faiths and none.


Religious liberty is not only a universal right, but it also depends upon a universal responsibility to respect that right for others, treating others as we ourselves desire to be treated. All citizens must recognize the inseparable link between the preservation of their own constitutional rights and their responsibility as citizens to defend those rights for all others. This is what the Williamsburg Charter calls the “Golden Rule for civic life.”


Debate and disagreement are vital to classroom discussion and a key element of preparation for citizenship in a democracy. Yet, if we are to live with our differences, particularly our religious differences, how we debate, and not only what we debate, is critical. At the heart of good citizenship is a strong commitment to the civic values that enable people with diverse religious and philosophical perspectives to treat one another with respect and civility.

Rights, responsibilities and respect, then, Haynes says, are the civic ground rules for teaching about religion in the public schools, just as they are the ground rules of American citizenship. When we teach about the many cultures and religions of our nation and the world, we must simultaneously teach our common ground — the civic values and responsibilities that we share as American citizens. If this is done, teaching about religion becomes an excellent opportunity to teach respect for universal rights and mutual responsibilities, within which the deep differences of belief can be negotiated.