Teaching Religious Tolerance
Maintaining religious tolerance has been a challenge for humanity since the dawn of time, so what chance do our kids have? A good one, apparently, so long as parents and teachers manage to walk the fine line between teaching kids what other people believe and allowing them the freedom to accept different religious beliefs without having to read their truths as gospel.
According to the Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, the majority of Americans (78.4%) identify themselves as Christians, predominantly Protestant (51.3%), then Catholic (23.9%), whereas “other” religions — Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Hindi are the big four — account for just 4.7% of the population. Atheists, agnostics and “nothing in particulars” make up the remainder. One thing that’s characterized all religious perspectives is that they all have, at some point, clashed — often violently — with each other.
Perceived differences run deep not just in adults, but in their children too. Dr. Emile Lester, assistant professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and author of the forthcoming book Teaching about Religion: A Democratic Approach in Public Schools, conducted a study of schoolchildren in 2006 with Dr. Patrick Roberts of Virginia Tech. The study, Learning About World Religions in Public Schools: The Impact on Student Attitudes and Community Acceptance in Modesto, Calif., involved approximately 350 surveys administered three times over a five month period, and interviews with students, teachers, and religious and community leaders.
The results were fairly predictable: Just like adults, most kids feign tolerance for other religious groups they consider most like their own. But ask them about “least-liked” groups and tolerance takes a dive.
There is also passive and active tolerance, which is the difference between willful ignorance or refraining from saying anything negative about someone else’s religious beliefs and actively embracing them. Lester notes that a rabbi told him that several children in his congregation felt uncomfortable when invited to a Christian group’s pizza party; the hosts had no idea their classmates were Jewish, highlighting that while friendships exist across cultures, children from minority cultures aren’t comfortable expressing theirs.
The Modesto school system then underwent a nine-week course, as it has every year since 2000, first addressing the United States’ heritage of religious freedom and examined the First Amendment before spending the next seven weeks examining the next seven major world religions in the order they appeared. After the course, significantly more schoolchildren agreed that wearing religious symbols and clothing to school and publicly maintaining religious rituals at home constituted acceptable behavior.
Fostering religious tolerance remains a challenge for teachers and parents alike, though, not least because it’s so easy to overreact in the wrong way. “An essential part of religious freedom is the right to reject the truth of alternative religious views,” Lester says. Schools should strive to make sure that students appreciate the profound importance of respecting other students’ rights to express their religion, but this does not require teaching students that they should acknowledge the truth or meaning of each view about religion studied. Indeed, to do so, would itself involve a violation of religious freedom.”