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When teaching religion in schools, it’s the approach that matters

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The life of the mind and the mind of God have not always seen eye to eye. That is to say, the struggle to teach religious faith, in or out of the conventional classroom, has seen it’s fair share of frustrations.

The life of the mind and the mind of God have not always seen eye to eye. That is to say, the struggle to teach religious faith, in or out of the conventional classroom, has seen it’s fair share of frustrations.

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The life of the mind and the mind of God have not always seen eye to eye. That is to say, the struggle to teach religious faith, in or out of the conventional classroom, has seen its fair share of frustrations.

For the believer, the teachings and events that form the foundation of faith are often best left as mysteries. The scientific method will never be able to explain the unexplainable, they argue, because that’s the job of religion.

To the secularist, however, the teaching of religion can be tricky for other reasons. The fear of mingling the academic and the devout could do some serious damage to one’s intellectual understanding of the world, they argue. Schools should focus on what’s provable. And faith, by definition, does not rely on proof.

But still there are those who argue leaving religion out of the classroom entirely does a disservice both to the believer and the skeptic.

“If students are to function as globally competent citizens, they need to understand religion's profound impact on history, politics, society and culture,” Rev. Mark Fowler and Marisa Fasciano wrote for Education Week last year.

According to Fowler and Fasciano, teaching children (and students) about religion helps improve diversity and builds bridges between different systems of belief.

“To ensure that students of less familiar cultures and religious traditions feel included and safe in their learning communities, teachers need to provide opportunities for all students to share unique aspects of their identities,” they argued.

In a 2003 report from The First Amendment Center that explored methods of improving religious education, historian Jon Butler urged that shying away from discussing religion in academic settings can have negative, though unintended, consequences.

“We’re poorly prepared to comprehend a world that is aflame in faith,” he said. “College students frequently know little about religion in the United States, much less about religion in the world. High school graduates, who overwhelmingly constitute the military in the United States, know almost nothing about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism or those branches of Christianity they do not practice themselves. And yet they have been asked to fight wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 15 years in which religion has stood at the very center of each conflict.”

But as author Charles Haynes said in that same report, the question with religion in schools is less “if” and more “how.” The importance of understanding cultural beliefs is relatively unanimous among educational thinkers. The problem is in the approach.

In a recent post for Big Think, however, Derek Beres argues that we don’t have to search too far to find the best method to study and teach religion.

“We’d better be able to wrap our heads around religion if we treated it as a social science,” Beres wrote. “At heart, that’s the function religion plays: a consensus of beliefs regarding that community’s relationship to its place and time.”

According to Beres, many of the issues that are a constant presence in the public consciousness — from climate change to immigration reform to abortion — are informed by religious world views. Understanding those world views on a more profound level, say, as one seeks to understand the culture surrounding the Civil War or the American Revolution, could do a lot to improve the discussion.

Beres argues that applying the analytical methods that educators use to understand other academic pursuits doesn’t mean schools should take an adversarial role against faith. While his assertions about the nature of religion might not please every clergyman (“Religion is the product of imagination combined with fragility,” he explained), his overall point is that studying religion is an important part of understanding the human condition, and should be treated as such.

But even beyond what students can learn from religion, Beres believes that religion itself can benefit from the microscope of the classroom.

“Many of the issues regarding other social sciences, such as psychology, geography, and anthropology, were once mysterious,” Beres continued. “Researchers advanced these fields by working together and peer reviewing the evidence. The same benefits could be attained by treating religion in the same manner.”

JJ Feinauer is a writer for Deseret News National. Email: jfeinauer@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: jjfeinauer.