This paper was originally written in 2014 by me for my college English course. Enjoy!
America is often seen as the land of the free. Americans are proud to boast their rich heritage and their many freedoms. The proudest one: the freedom of religion. The very first amendment of the United States Constitution proclaims that all citizens have the right to worship freely. This was sparked by the very reasons the first settlers came to the New World: religious freedom. The idea of freedom of religion is very ideal in theory; however, Americans are often hypocritical when it comes to the practice of this ideal.
Religious intolerance in America has been very prevalent since the very beginning in the colonies (Corrigan 8). The pilgrims prosecuted the Quakers, the Protestants detested the Catholics, and religious individuals everywhere despised the so-called “witches” (Corrigan). Anti-Semitism can even be traced back to colonial America when Jews arrived in what is now New York City in 1654 (Corrigan 41). The Dutch colony residing there at the time wished to banish the Jews because the Jewish ancestors had been the murderers of Jesus Christ.
In America today, religious intolerance is still a great hindrance to the society. Discrimination against those of faith and those without leads to many unsettled conflicts. Entire religious sects are being persecuted in modern American society: Japanese Americans during World War II, Catholics during the Kennedy Presidency, and even Jews before the release of The Passion of the Christ in 2004. Intolerance is definitely not limited to those of faith. Non-believers are often targets of discrimination simply because they deny or question the existence of a god. In many states, atheists are disqualified from holding office or even testifying in court because any person who denies the existence of God is deemed to be incompetent (Corrigan 124).
The root of all modern religious intolerance in America is simply religious illiteracy (Moore 5). The main sources of religious education for American citizens are through the media and interaction with others (Moore 5). Neither of these two sources of information exposes citizens to a comprehensive study of world religious views. Religious illiteracy is a direct cause of the prejudice and hate that leads to the intolerance of other beliefs. This is a frightening realization. In the land of the supposedly free, there exists any and all imaginable religions, yet only 10% of teens can name the major five (Laycock).
Hatred and intolerance are also sparked by misconceptions of an individual’s beliefs. In the United States, one in every five adults and one in every three youth identify as “non-religious” (Gaylor). Non-religious individuals include atheists, agnostics, and humanists among others. Atheists are commonly thought of as devil-worshippers and rebellious to societal values. Agnostics are often classified as confused or indecisive, therefore in need of “saving.” These offensive labels are currently being applied to twenty percent of the American adult population, and an even greater percentage of the youth.
The only feasible solution to religious illiteracy is religious education. It should be mandatory for all United States citizens to study comparative religion at the high school level. This type of religious course would need to be solely academic and informative to the students. The classes must be secular and inclusive of all of America’s diverse faiths and lack thereof. The American Academy of Religion has published a very easy-to-follow approach to the teaching of such a course in public school systems. The cultural studies approach to teaching about religion is by far the most useful:
1) it helps students recognize that religion is part of the fabric of human experience and that in order to understand it one must consider religious beliefs and practices as they shape and are shaped by elements of culture; 2) it provides tools to understand how some religious beliefs and expressions become culturally and politically marginalized; and 3) it provides tools to recognize and analyze the interpretative dimensions of all knowledge claims. (Moore 10)
This approach to teaching about religion requires teachers to train in religious studies, but will be most beneficial to their students.
Teachers of comparative religion courses should be very knowledgeable of the subject and meet certain requirements to be considered qualified to teach the course. Teachers must be especially careful as to not teach any particular religion as truth or disrespect any or all religions (Moore 19). Teaching of the course will be the most challenging task for public school districts. This is due to the fact that students are highly susceptible to coercion and manipulation (Anti-Defamation). This can often discourage schools from offering any courses that deal with religion; however, it is very feasible to regulate courses that teach about religion. Teachers can easily begin the class by making certain things clear to their students: the goal of the class is not to promote religion or discourage people from believing, but rather to inform the students about the different beliefs in America (Moore 11).
A very prominent misconception about teaching about religion is that it is unconstitutional and in violation of the separation of church and state. However, this is untrue. The Constitution outlines that no particular religion can be forced upon citizens by the government. The non-devotional study of religions is perfectly legal (Moore 8). Religious studies in the classroom place an emphasis on “studies” and not on the practice of any particular religions (Moore 8).
It is also sometimes seen as the sole rights of a child’s parents to educate their children religiously (Bartkowiak). This is a very solid argument; however, parents may only teach their children their own religious beliefs and their beliefs about other religions. This does not give children the opportunity to fully understand the diverse beliefs that make up the nation of which they are citizens.
If America does not begin to educate their youth on religious diversity, religious intolerance will continue to be a major problem and hindrance to society. Religious instruction is a necessary and unavoidable part of an American education. The basics of religion are briefly discussed in many different required courses already, including history and literature classes. Giving religious studies its own in-depth course will help students comprehend material in other courses, such as the Protestant Reformation and the artwork of the Sistine Chapel. Religious misconceptions can easily be eliminated and America’s future leaders will be better prepared for life in their country. America needs to live up to the promises of religious freedom that their citizens are so proud of by eliminating religious illiteracy and, thus, putting an end to the intolerance that plagues the nation.
Anti-Defamation League. Religion in the Public Schools: Religion in the Curriculum. Anti-Defamation League, 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://archive.adl.org/religion_ps_2004/religion.html#.VInOuzHF-Vk>
Bartkowiak, Julia J. Religious Education in the Public Schools. Boston University, 10 Aug. 1998. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Soci/SociBart.htm>
Corrigan, John, and Lynn S. Neal, eds. Religious Intolerance in America: A Documentary History. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Print.
Gaylor, Annie Laurie. “The Dangers of Religious Instruction in Public Schools.” Religion & Politics. John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/01/07/the-dangers-of-religious-instruction-in-public-schools/>
Laycock, Joseph. “We Must Teach about Religion in High Schools.” Religion & Politics. John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics, 7 Jan. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/01/07/we-must-teach-about-religion-in-high-schools/>
Moore, Diane L. “Guidelines for Teaching about Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States.” American Academy of Religion. The AAP Religion in the Schools Task Force, Apr. 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <https://www.aarweb.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/Publications/epublications/AARK-12CurriculumGuidelines.pdf>