To advance religious freedom, teach about religion

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Last week the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a compelling wake-up call to citizens of all 56 member states — including the United States — about the dangers of ignoring religion in public schools.

Titled the Toledo Guiding Principles, after the Spanish city where the initial drafting took place, the report urges nations to take religion seriously in education and provides a human rights framework for including fair, accurate study about religions and beliefs in the classroom. (Disclosure: I served on the drafting committee.)

I see it as a Nixon-goes-to-China moment when Western Europe — with some of the most secular nations on earth — supports guidelines for putting more study about religion in state schools.

But many Europeans, like many Americans, are finally beginning to understand that ignorance about religions in religiously diverse societies is a root cause of intolerance and discrimination. Confronted with a resurgence of anti-Semitism, outbreaks of Islamophobia, and growing religious divisions, OSCE nations are scrambling for ways to help their citizens live with one another. When religions encounter one another, ignorance is far from bliss.

Until recently, many politicians and educators on both sides of the Atlantic shrugged off “teaching about religions” as an inconvenient add-on — or avoided it as a subject too hot to handle. True, in recent years there has been some progress toward inclusion of religion in the curriculum, especially in the United States and Great Britain. But most schools across the OSCE countries continue to ignore the academic study of religion and beliefs.

Now changing demographics in a post-9/11 world has put religion front and center in nations worried about exploding religious diversity, alienated youths, skinheads and homegrown terrorists. Learning about what your neighbors believe and practice won’t answer all of these challenges overnight — but it can go a long way toward creating more social cohesion and support for religious freedom.

Enter the Toledo Guiding Principles. The document promotes teaching about religions and beliefs “in ways that are fair, accurate and based on sound scholarship,” an approach entirely consistent with how religion must be treated in American public schools under the First Amendment. And it provides a roadmap for implementing study about religions with sound teacher preparation, high-quality curriculum development and protection for the rights of students and parents.

What sets this document apart from other reports and guidelines on this issue is the strong emphasis on promoting universal human rights as a central aim of study about religions and beliefs in public schools. Even the phrase “religions and beliefs” is meant to affirm inclusion of all people — including those without a religious affiliation.

Of course, there are a host of good educational reasons for learning about religions and beliefs. Much of history, art, music and literature — not to mention the age-old struggle to answer the “big questions” of human existence — are lost on those who are religiously illiterate.

In public schools, however, teaching about religions and beliefs also advances the not-so-hidden agenda of promoting understanding across differences in a society committed to religious freedom. As the report puts it: “Teaching about religions and beliefs is most effective when combined with efforts to instill respect for the rights of others, even when there is disagreement about religions or beliefs.”

As someone who has been banging the teach-about-religion drum in the U.S. for more than 20 years, I’m well aware of just how tough a sell this could be in many OSCE nations. But in a world torn by religious conflicts, perhaps people will see this as an idea whose time has finally come.

Education about religion won’t be enough to ensure inter-religious understanding — that’s a task for faith communities and all sectors of society. But more study about religions could bring about a climate change in schools and communities that might lower the temperature of religious conflict and division.

It isn’t easy — and it takes work. But in 21st century America and Europe, taking religious freedom seriously in the public square will require taking religion seriously in the public schools.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: E-mail:

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