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Do We Like Where our Education about Religion is Coming From?

April 5, 2011

I guess it’s time I spoke about a major peeve.  I’m trying to do something about it, including with this blog.  The peeve is that there is almost no education about religion anywhere in our educational systems.  That goes beyond public schools to our media, our entertainment, even our churches.  “Surely not our churches?” you may think.  Well, yes… they teach religion and/or “spirituality,” but not much about religion.  Often when they do it is to simplistically label and denigrate all others but the one represented. 

My own story in relation to education about religion I think is representative of a big enough chunk of the population to share it.  As to public schooling, through high school, there was precious little that even addressed religion.  Maybe passing references in world or US history, or in some assigned or elective literature for English classes.  But no class on world religions or such was even available (granted this was a small-town high school in the 60s.)  Both US and world history should have had a major component on the influence, often the centrality of religion, issues surrounding religion such as tensions causing or exacerbating wars, etc.  Maybe it was there and I’ve forgotten, but I doubt it.    

I know, I know: it’s very hard to treat religion in a public school textbook or in class in a way that is objective and fair to all.  People won’t even be able to agree on what such a standard would be and how to apply it.  But, with all the difficulties, we have to do better, and I believe we can!

I do mean better in terms of public school but also much more broadly.  But in a short, readable post I can’t develop detailed proposals, nor would it likely have much influence.  However, I may at least be able to get you thinking about where and how you learned about religion, and if your education may be as meager and incomplete as that of most people, here in the US and probably everywhere. 

Since I didn’t learn about religion in public school, where did I learn? First, from my family and church.  But there, really only about the Bible and about one religion — Christianity.  As I look back, the quality and breadth of that education was really inadequate.  In detail in some respects, such as one theological perspective, but really superficial overall.  And that held true right on through college, in that I attended a Christian liberal arts college which has since become a university (Biola in La Mirada, near Los Angeles, CA).  I took (as required) the basic equivalent of a major in Bible, with an elective of biblical Greek.  Yet with these 30-odd units, and with a Christian worldview informing all the classes, I learned almost nothing about other religions or psychology or sociology of religion, etc.  (And my actual major was psychology.)  

Is there something wrong with this picture? I think so — strongly, and I know that the situation is similar throughout the few hundred similar Christian colleges and universities throughout the country which educate probably hundreds of thousands of students every year. 

I went on to seminary for a three-year master’s and the story was not that different, although I had a course on world religions and some anthropology that tackled other beliefs and cultures (“tackled” almost literally).  However, the latter was elective and not taken by most students.  I have only gradually over the years learned much about religion in general and how it can and should be studied as, for just one thing, an aspect of psychology and human development. (This I have done, both informally and formally in counseling education and a unique interdisciplinary PhD program, now phased out by Claremont School of Theology for another unique program.)

Isn’t religion one of the most influential things on our thinking, feeling and behavior (or our opposition to religion, perhaps)? Given it is the source of so much inner anxiety and outer tension (along with, undoubtedly, a lot of good), isn’t it a critical subject for our educational system address in some way, even if that itself will be controversial?

But, back to my other purpose here… I really would like to get a range of stories from you all as to what you were exposed to, at what periods of your life, how it impacted you, etc.  Particularly if you did somehow get some helpful education on religion in general or psychology of religion, etc.  What were your experiences? How did your views about (not just of, as a believer or unbeliever) religion get formed? And what are you still curious about?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 5, 2011 10:40 pm

    Thanks for the comment on my FB wall, Evan (I’m partial to your name, having named my son that). I didn’t get as far as discussing religion as taught in higher education beyond Christian schools. I do realize that many good courses and programs exist there, mainly in public or private, marginally religious schools (maybe founded by a denomination but only nominally affiliated now, like USC, where my daughter went–see my current profile pic, tho now almost 2 years old). That is the one “saving grace” re. education on religion in the US. That and maybe the programs of many mainline or “liberal” seminaries.

    Unfortunately, many seminarians who then go to pastor in relatively conservative or mixed congregations (partly liberal), will admit that they do not preach or share personally much of what they actually know and believe about Christianity or religion more broadly, because it will upset their congregations and maybe threaten their jobs as well.

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