Teach About Religion Through Shared Values

We require American students to know algebra to graduate from high school. We require them to understand our political system … Continued

We require American students to know algebra to graduate from high school. We require them to understand our political system of checks and balances. We even require most of them to dissect a frog to get a diploma.

We consider all of those things essential to being “educated” – to having the fundamental knowledge to engage competently and confidently in the broader world.

How can we not provide our high school students with an appreciative understanding of the most potent force in human history and contemporary society – the world’s religions and their various interactions?

Religious diversity is no longer just an ‘over there’ phenomenon. Bill Moyers relates a telling story about America’s changing religious landscape.

Two guys are sitting at a café in California. One says to the other, “Do you know anything about Eastern religions?”

His friend responds, “Sure. I knew some Methodists when I lived in Pennsylvania”.

Whatever we might think Eastern religion refers to these days, my bet is that it is something other than Methodists in Pennsylvania.

And while our doctrine of separation of church and state wisely prevents any one religion from being enshrined in our public institutions, it does not stop us from teaching about religion.

In fact, in its 1963 decision in the case of Abington v. Schempp, the United States Supreme Court declared that study about religions in the nation’s public schools was both legal and crucial. Justice Tom Clark, writing for the majority opinion, stated:

“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religions or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”

The real question is not whether we should teach about religion and religious diversity, it is how. The methodology that my organization, the Interfaith Youth Core uses, is called shared values / service-learning.

Serving others is a value that all religions share. Tracing how this value plays out across religions – in their various scriptures, poetry, heroes, rituals, etc – provides a fascinating window into religion, because it helps students make the connection between the somewhat abstract aspects of a tradition and the concrete practices of a community.

Students can, for example, learn about the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, which says, “No one of you truly believes until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself,” and talk to a Muslim community about how their practice of charity helps achieve this goal.

There are similar concepts in all the world‘s religions, and in our increasingly religiously diverse America, there are many religious communities putting these teachings into practice. A careful study of the American religious landscape will reveal numerous initiatives that seek to apply the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair of the world), projects that practice the service ethic of Hindu sages such as Vivekananda and Gandhi, and efforts that give concrete shape to the Buddhist notion of compassion and the Christian call to justice.

In this way, students learn that there are indeed universal values shared across traditions, but that each religion has its own unique approach to these values.

Over the past several years, I have given dozens of talks to K-12 educators at every level – from kindergarten teachers to high school principals – and to faculty, staff and students at college campuses. In response to their questions, the Interfaith Youth Core has developed teacher training workshops on our interfaith shared values methodology and a campaign called the Days of Interfaith Youth Service which helps educational institutions apply this approach in a more active way.

We would be happy to work with you and your institution. Visit http://www.ifyc.org to find out more.

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  • Ba’al

    Most of the values that are conserved across humanity have nothing necessarily to do with religion. In fact, the ones that every religion addresses are the same ones important to atheists, agnostics, and pretty much every culture on the planet. Just thought that needed to be mentioned, especially for the “values voters” who might be reading, and for the people out their who think you need Jesus or Mohammad to be moral. Also, my impression is that a course like the one this guy describes would be intellectual pablum. It is the differences between religions that are interesting. Minor differences in theology have had major and sometimes tragic consequences for human history. One could argue that these have emerged during power struggles for control of a religious group that has amassed considerable secular/political power — that is, the theology is maybe not so important as the politics, at least for the people driving the conflicts.

  • Norrie Hoyt

    HOT OFF THE WIRE:”Georgia public schools move towards teaching BibleBy DOUG GROSSON THE FRONT PAGE OF THE WAPO TODAYNotice that no other religion’s scriptures are being taught.Want to bet on whether the classes will have an Episcopal or a Fundamentalist cast to them?This Georgia law shows exactly why religion should not be taught in the public schools!

  • Matthew

    Ba’al – The differences are indeed interesting, but not exclusively so. It’s often much more difficult to think through the similarities, samenesses, subtle alike-ness of things than the differences. If the values being described “have nothing necessarily to do with religion,” it is nonetheless interesting to consider the ways in which they do appear, and are dealt with, in various religions. Pointing out similarities at a time when people assume difference first, often rooted in ignorance rather than knowledge, doesn’t strike me as wasted effort. Diversifying our concept of diversity, I think, is essential. If we want a world where being poor, white, and West Virginian is as distinctively minority as being poor, black, and from Oakland, we’re going to have to work on drawing finer distinctions.

  • halozcel

    Interfaith Youth Core,State of New York.Population 19 millions,there are 150 universities.USA,founded in 1774,230 years old state went to Moon.Sweden,population 9 millions,GDP 370 billions dollarsRespect…To what?…Man can scourge women?…Two women equals one man.Timothy 2.12.Tale,No one of you truly believers until he wants for his brother what he wants for himself.Methodology,İnterfaith Youth Core uses a unique Shared Values…Yes Human Rights and Civilization only Shared Values…

  • DaveB

    Ba’al is quite correct. The values that most cultures share do not derive from religion. Religions simply co-opt those values. As societal norms change, religions change with them. The values advanced by religions today are different from those of a hundred years ago, and so forth through time. What Christian church today would reject a man because he had the misfortune to lose his genitals? That is what Thomas instructed the early churches to do. Christian churches are allowing women to speak during services and often to become ministers, although that too contradicts biblical instructions. One could compile a long list of topics on which religions adopt the values of society. The values, like “do unto others”, that religions, especially main-stream religions, promote are largely the same values advanced by atheists and agnostics.

  • Ralph

    Since all cultures have a religious origin, how can their values not derive from religion?Denying the religious source of social values is a signature indicator of a victim of statist brainwashing. It isn’t that people failed to learn history and social studies in public school. It is simply a fact that the public schools failed to teach history and social studies. References to religion were omitted or diminished in an effort to include all religions plus athiests. The effect was to make a generation or two of Americans ignorant of the role of religion in history and in world affairs today.

  • Patrick

    Living a life in the service of others, is a life lived with value. This is a statement of Mr. Salazar. I believe this is a correct statement, and consistent with Mr. Eboo Patel’s understanding and statement of, ‘serving others is a value that all religions share.’Living a life for the service of the happines of oneself and others is truly a noble life, and a respectworthy life as well. Nichiren Buddhism teaches that such an attitude, ‘leads to the true happiness of oneself and others.’ True happiness is internalized and not externalized, and can be attained through an internal revolution and not an external revolution.This internal human revolution is motivated through developing the deepest respect for oneself and others, simultaneously, creating a value system encompassing all people and not any one group of people or person’s.Religion is a personal choice; as is education; and should not be a part of the educational landscape, but maintain a separate identity for individual choice’s to continue. Religious diversity can be achieved through dignified respect to all people, without knowing their religious beliefs or educational background; as all people desire to be truly happy, which is common to all people; irregardless of their religious or personal beliefs, simmply by respecting their ability and desire to be truly happy and not by any public education asystem.

  • Ralph

    Service to others and selflesness are common among the world’s most successful religions. Religion has been and continues to be the source of community and commonality between people all over the world. We may see people at a civic association meeting about new stoplights and greet them as friends and neighbors, but it is the names we recognize during weekly worship services that receive our communal prayers, both then and later.Secular governments have become popular in recent centuries as the ability to take resources by force has grown. Whether it is a business is being padlocked at gunpoint for failure to pay taxes or an entire country being invaded to steal its gold or oil (Mexico and Iraq), the state’s ability to take by force today far surpasses any religion’s ability to cause an outpouring of resources by an appeal to peoples’ hearts. So today few people remember that once upon a time and for many thousands of years, it was the selflessness of ordinary people while practicing their religions that built the world’s great cultures. In fact, when the question specifically asks if schools should teach “about religion,” people simply jump to denounce the teaching OF religion in public schools.Is there a religion of statism that indoctrinates children to place their faith in government and to worship and die for America’s political ideals? Is there a stealth religion of statism that is hostile to all self-proclaimed religions, and therefore purges them from the history and social studies curriculums and texts?I’m not skilled to make such an analysis, but I have never seen such an analysis made either.

  • Nicholas Price

    Dear Eboo,So the question I would raise is, what would this partnership look like? How would it be encouraged in order to give students a well-rounded understanding of religious communities while at the same time ensuring that no religious communtiy is favored over the others? Answering these questions would be vitally important not merely for the purposes of education, but also in order to ensure that the students from these religious communities would feel welcome in a course that speaks to their religious identity. I have found that this has been a major pitfall of religious studies departments around the country. Within my own academic experience I found that certain religious individuals would go to a class about their faith tradition and walk away feeling affirmed in their belief. Other students, however, would go to a class on their faith tradition and walk away feeling alienated and torn down. Some faiths were expounded upon with compassion and acceptance while others were not. This is why I feel a higher level of cooperation and understanding is needed if one is going to teach religion in the public sphere.I think the shared values approach meets this need on areas of agreement, but would be limited when it came to areas of disagreement between faith groups. How do we properly address this difference? If we truly value a deeper level of understanding we cannot ignore the differences between faith groups as well. As we have talked about before, I think that both an affirmation of our similarities and an honest discussion of our differences can and should take place at the same time, but this is a hard line to walk and I would be interested in knowing how the IFYC is approaching this kind of dialogue.One way in which I think we could begin doing this is in talking about how certain virtues, though shared among faith groups, are also understood in different ways. Let us take love, for example. I recently had a discussion with the Hindu Students Council (HSC) about love in both Hinduism and Christianity. Though love is emphasized in both religions, their understandings of the purpose of love were drastically different. For example, my friends from the HSC shared with me how love is meant to help a person realize their unity to all things and, ultimately, their intrinsic connection with Brahman. This realization is what helps them attain moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, and complete unification with Brahman.In Christian thought, love is also important to help one realize one’s relationship with God and with His creation. However, it is not meant to release one from the world, but rather encourage radical identification with it and a desire to participate in God’s redemptive plan for the whole of His creation. As such, Christians are called to care for the poor, the environment, the oppressed, and so forth not to ultimately be freed from the world, but to redeem it and help restore it, in accordance with God’s original desire for His world.Through our dialogue, we discovered that though we shared the value of love, the way in which we understood it was different. While one calls us out of the world and into full union with Brahman, the other calls us into the world, in union with God through Christ, to redeem it. So it was that we had a dialogue about our similarities as well as our differences in a way that was both educational and constructive. It was a fascinating dialogue because we recognized the differences in our understandings not just of love, but of who we are as humans, who God is, and what our purpose is. In effect, we were able to talk about our differences in worldview while at the same time learning about areas of overlap in which we could work together and affirm one another.It is in this vein that I wanted to address Patrick’s assertion that, “religious diversity can be achieved through dignified respect to all people, without knowing their religious beliefs or educational background; as all people desire to be truly happy, which is common to all people; irregardless of their religious or personal beliefs, simply by respecting their ability and desire to be truly happy and not by any public education system.” I would argue that such an approach does not create true respect, but rather a peaceful ambivalence between peoples of faith and between people of faith and other non-religious worldviews. By refusing to acknowledge, learn about, or engage with beliefs which are central to our identities, we fail to create a truly respectful and harmonious society because we are denying what makes us who we are. By saying that you respect me but do not want to know about my faith, you are in fact dismissing who I am. Likewise, I would be dismissing you if I did not want to learn about what shapes your worldview. Though this approach might work in peacetime, what happens in times when tragedy strikes?The unfortunate events of September 11th, 2001 led to a great deal of misunderstanding. Sikhs were attacked because their turbans looked similar to the one that Osama bin Laden wears. Muslims were black-balled as terrorists because Al-Qaeda presents itself as a Muslim body of believers. When tragedy struck, all we had to go on as a nation was our ignorance and ignorance breeds misunderstanding, which in turn breeds fear, which ultimately results in hatred. Because there was no genuine dialogue beforehand, there could be no honest reflection, healing, and unity after these events.In many ways we are still reeling from our own respectful ambivalence as misunderstandings have continued to arise in places as far away as Denmark and as close to home our our public universities. So while I understand the desire behind your assertion, Patrick, I does not hold in the realities of our world today, especially when genuine tensions do arise.In response to Daveb and Ba’al, I must encourage an honest treatment of Western intellectual history. In your post, Daveb, you stated that, “Religions simply co-opt those values” in reference to ideals like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. However, the atheism and agnosticism that you reference grew out of the Enlightenment, where the goal was to preserve those values from religion (namely Christianity) which they felt were good, such as the Golden Rule, while removing those that were divisive or based on “superstition”. This is what led to the humanism that you espouse, not the other way around. Yes religions share these values, and these are core beliefs in terms of what it means to be human, but we should not re-write history to make it appear as if these beliefs were developed first in the atheist or agnostic framework and then adopted by religious communities. This is simply not in keeping with an honest examination of Western intellectual thought.However, I do want to say that you are both right in that atheists and agnostics do share these values with people of religion and I affirm you in your belief in this regard. Atheists and agnostics should be a part of religious dialogue, especially when it relates to how religious groups interact with larger societies, such as the secular and plural ones that we find in the United States and Western Europe. Often it is the questioning from atheists and agnostics that has prompted religious communities to re-examine how their beliefs are expressed and worked out.This is not to say that beliefs such as gender equality, racial justice, and so forth were not present in those religious systems before, but rather that they were overlooked in favor of other areas of doctrine. Through the critique of thoughtful atheists, religious groups have had to go back to their sacred texts and once again examine the core of their belief systems in response to such questions. Questioning is healthy if the search is for truth. So in these ways I am indebted to the Enlightenment thinkers who challenged my faith tradition to be relavent. Though I ultimately disagree with some of their larger assumptions, their questions forced my community to re-examine the core essentials of our faith systems and respond in thoughtful ways. So thank you for your constant willingness to question and be a part of the dialogue. Your thoughts are deeply appreciated.Sincerely,Nicholas Price

  • Ba’al

    Nicholas,Atheists do not claim that they were the first to accept a certain universal set of moral values that they share with most religious people, only that acceptance of these values does not require a religious mindset at all.Enlightenment thinkers who developed the US Constitution consciously incorporated a considerable amount of (pagan) Roman legal thinking. Given what you wrote in your post, I have to also point out that this very considerable debt is NEVER acknowledged by right-wing fundamentalists. Instead, they claim without ever correlating a section of the Constitution with a scriptural verse that the Bible is the source of everything that is Good and True about the American system. That claim is simply false. In fact, the debt to Roman legal thinking (one of the things they were really good at, along with civil engineering) can be seen quite clearly in the architecture that was universally adopted in government buildings in the United States very early on. Nowhere else in the world to capital and court buildings attempt to mimic Greco-Roman styles, certainly not in Europe.

  • halozcel

    Dear Jihadist,Please,play as much as your money.Dont use credits.Be careful for your portfolio.Hundred percent shares portfolio has always higher risk.Think about state bonds as well.Today March 12 Monday London time 7.54 in the morning.Asian stocks closing higher.American futures slightly up.FTSE may open upward,but later nobody knows?I wish good luck for you.

  • Jihadist

    HalozcelMy portfolios did very well. How could it not? Islamic financial services is a growth market, be it bonds, insurance, stocks or plain banking. And now I have spare change for more donations. You can’t be nervous but nervy to go into banking and financial services. But I always avoid US mutual funds. Too much short term profit oriented. Made some of the people I know in Wall Street crash and burn before. They got too creative in racking and jacking up profits. I don’t get you. Sometimes your English is good. Sometimes I just can’t make sense of what you are saying. I reason it away as not comprehending English enough. It is, after all, not my mother tongue.

  • Ashfaq

    Watch this video from a US soldier about atrocities he and other US soldiers commit on a daily basis in Iraq against innocent people:

  • Ba’al

    NicholasHowever, I also want to thank you and Jihadist for civilized dialog, and for not accusing people like DaveB and myself of being victims of “statist brainwashing”.(Actually I came to my atheist beliefs with no help from the State. Fundamentalists of many stripes convinced me all by themselves).

  • victoria

    “it was a good feeling- i was -like- hell yeah! lets do it again! that was awesome! thats the words of the very young soldier who had just cold bloodedly shot an iraqi civilian in the street- courtesy fo the video provided by ashfaq- do we want to raise a generation that thinks it “awesome” to kill the “other”? prejudice and hatred are taught- i watched a commercial recently- it was soldiers killing an unknown enemy (but clearly desert country) and fromthe fog emerges a faceless figure who comes toward the camera- (the face remains identityless and obscured) it becomes a little girl and the voiceover proclaims “KILL THEM ALL” unsettling to say the least as commented earlier- statism seems to be a religion in america- nationalism is nothing new- the over 50 crowd is the most virulently islamophobic- knowledge creates tolerance jihadist- hazels posts are rife with incomplete sentences and unfinshed disconnected thoughts-

  • Cherl

    The problem that I have with religion being taught in public schools is that parents don’t want any other religions being discussed, and many feel that only their beliefs are valid and all others are wrong. We talk about the Bible, but encourage intolerance, discrimination and hate in our own children. Many adults are down-right hypocrites, but tout the Bible as if they are all knowing. All denominations have variations on their interpretations of the Bible. Many believe in God, but have their own version of the Bible or word of God. If religion is going to be taught in public schools, then ALL religions should be given equal time or not at all. Personally, I don’t believe it is the teachers job to teach shared values to the children, but the parents at home.