Teaching About Religions to Foster Understanding, Respect

Students Appreciate Becoming Better Informed

Curtis Davey, in MSU sweatshirt, is the winner of a daily comical quiz prize

As students walked into Craig Beach’s darkened classroom on a recent morning, they heard the song “Wild World” by the former Cat Stevens, now the Muslim musician Yusuf Islam. A projection screen showed the Kaaba, the sacred building in Mecca toward which Muslims pray.

Beach had set the ambience for a discussion of Islam, one of the five major religions he covers in his History of World Religions Course at Rockford High School. Icons and symbols of the others adorned the walls: the Buddhist wheel of enlightenment, a Jewish prayer, the seven deadly sins according to Gandhi, the genealogy of Jesus Christ.

See Related Article: Muslim Teacher Hopes to Plant ‘Seed of Understanding’ – The Monday after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Sairah Ahmed went to teach her history classes at Cedar Springs High School with a heavy heart. Like her, the two terrorists were Muslim, but she felt no connection whatsoever to them or their beliefs.

Rockford students’ takes on Craig Beach’s world religions class

“I wanted to not be one of those people that believes everything Fox News says about religion. They only broadcast the extremists.” – junior Taylor Lawrence

“With everything in the media, you have to take the initiative to educate yourself so you’re not stuck following all the stereotypes.” – junior Madison Nance

“He just gives us the facts, and we can make up our minds from there.” – junior Taylor Lawrence

“Young people probably think all Muslimsare terrorists, and they’re really not. People should be more informed.” – junior Connor Borg

Today, however, they waded into Islam, its core teachings and the touchy topic of Muslim women’s attire. Their text for the day was the Quran, Islam’s holy book. Beach pointed out it contains only two brief passages regarding female modesty, yet popular stereotypes portray an oppressive dress code.

“If I say ‘Islamic female,’ what comes to your mind?” Beach challenged 26 junior and senior students. “Completely covered,” replied Olivia Ford. “Because that’s what we’re shown in the news,” Beach said.

Kirin Dempsey countered that many Muslim women cover their heads by choice: “They want people to look at them for their personality, not their beauty.”

“You basically just took 10 minutes out of my lesson,” Beach said. “That’s an excellent point.”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

As one of the few public-school faculty in Kent County teaching a course on religion, Beach loves to hear comments like Kirin’s. They give him hope that with better understanding of other faiths, young people can create a better world.

“I always start out class by trying to hammer home that the person sitting next to you has as strong beliefs as you have. They just might not be the same,” Beach said in an interview. “And that’s OK. We need to learn to accept that and get along.”

It’s a philosophy he’s followed since starting the course in 1993, while being careful to educate students about religions without endorsing any of them — a fine line public schools must walk to not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

While that clause may cause some to steer clear of the topic all together, there’s a need for public schools to teach about religion “in a constitutionally sound and intellectually responsible way,” said Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. The project promotes public understanding of religion, and offers training and guidelines for K-12 teachers.

“I believe there is a widespread illiteracy about religion that fuels prejudice and bigotry and hinders cooperative alliances in the civic sphere,” Moore said in an email. “For both cultural and civic competence, we simply have to do a better job educating future citizens about the complex roles religions play in human affairs.”

Moore maintains religion is widely taught in public schools but in an “often unconscious” way, with values communicated to students through cultural attitudes. While many schools offer elective courses like Beach’s, she says religion is better taught by embedding it in required courses such as history that connect it to broader political and economic realities. This historical approach is explored in a related story: Muslim Teacher Hopes to Plant ‘Seed of Understanding’.

Senior Caitlin Casapao is one of four sections of students taking History of World Religions this year

Religious Literacy Increasingly Relevant

World religion courses are taught at a few other Kent ISD schools, including Grandville High School. Forest Hills high schools have offered a Comparative World Religions course, though it’s not being taught this year, and some FH Northern students each year visit the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.

Beach began teaching his course because students wanted to know more when he touched on religion in his world history courses, he said. In a world increasingly riven by religious violence — and in rapidly diversifying West Michigan — the topic has only become more relevant since then. Between 90 and 150 students take his course each year.

“The students who come through Rockford are more likely to interact with a diverse group of people and be exposed to diverse beliefs than my generation,” said Beach, 53. “We don’t always do so well with people who aren’t like us, and we don’t know a lot about them.”

He aims to help his predominantly Christian (but not infrequently atheist) students know more about the major world faiths, using sacred texts of each religion and striving to dispel popular misconceptions. Teaching about religions, and Islam in particular, has provoked controversy in a few communities across the country.

“Knowledge creates a great understanding,” Beach said. “I hope understanding can create some acceptance, some respect.”

While encouraging students to ask challenging questions, he doesn’t tolerate personal attacks on faith — despite the passion students may have, he said. “I can’t get rid of emotion. But if we can develop a factual foundation, then we can develop clearer emotions.”

Nowhere more so than with Islam whose media-fueled association with violence Beach seeks to counter with balanced readings of the Quran that emphasize peace and harmonious relations with those of other religions. “Islam dominates the news, but extremism is universal,” he said. “There’s not a religion that doesn’t have fanatics.” In his class, he demonstrates this with examples of extremists in other faiths.

9/11

When Linda Berlin started teaching World Religions at Grandville High School in 2001, she didn’t have extensive knowledge of all five faiths she planned to cover. But she was excited to teach the class, and her plan was to stay a couple weeks ahead of her students. Then came the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“I was not prepared to discuss Islam yet, in any way, shape or form, yet learning about the faith became meaningful right away,” Berlin said, adding she got help from the Interfaith Dialogue Association, which provides speakers to schools. “So we worked our way through it together. That was the time the class became more than fun and interesting for me; it became meaningful.”

The intent of the class, she said, is to teach the foundations, history, practices and beliefs of selected religions, not argue their “rightness” or “wrongness” or compare them to one another. She would like her students to know more than she did at their age.

“Before I went to college, I didn’t know anyone of other faiths besides Christians,” Berlin recalled. “I was so amazed, and so excited to learn, but I was overwhelmed too. I was also embarrassed by the misconceptions I had. What I tell my students is, if nothing else after you take this class you might not embarrass yourself in front of your new Hindu roommate.”

Senior Kyra Rienstra so enjoyed World Religions last year, she worked with Berlin to create an independent study where she learned about the Amish, Mormon, Hare Krishna, Taoist, Sikh and Baha’i faiths.

Raised in a Christian home, “I really wantedto see what else there was, because I had never been exposed to any of it,” Kyra said. “This was the first opportunity I had to learn about these things.”

Bursting the Bubble

Beach’s students have similar yearnings to see beyond what one called the “bubble” of Rockford and its predominantly Christian culture. The class “defeats ignorance” of other faiths and provides insight into what motivates people, others said.

“I wanted to know what it was people devoted their lives to,” said Caleb Waldvogel. “If you’re really religious, it’s what your whole life is based on. It’s important to understand why.”

Some also find the class useful to their personal growth. Said Hannah Bloomquist, “I’m not religious myself, but I’ve been able to take lessons away from what we’ve learned about the religions and apply them to my own life.”

In their recent discussion of Islam, Beach’s students learned many Muslims believe some of the same things many Christians do, such as one God (though not the Trinity), judgment day and predestination. Said Olivia Ford, “I never knew they believed in Jesus as a prophet. It’s kind of cool.”

Beach’s overview of Islam’s core teachings was sprinkled with observations on popular culture, his daily quote from a Zen calendar and plenty of good humor. He told students he hoped they would engender mutual respect when they meet Muslims, and “create some closeness between two groups that have different ideas.”

“Your actions matter,” he said after class. “So I want them to feel they make a difference.”

CONNECT

Harvard Divinity School Religious Literacy Project

Guidelines for teaching about religion in K-12 public schools

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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