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Teaching About Religion vs. Teaching Religion


Ever since 1963, when U. S. Supreme Court allowed sectarian teaching of the Bible in public schools’ classrooms, the issue of this decision’s appropriateness has been discussed from a variety of sociological and legal perspectives, with many critics rightly pointing out to the fact that there is nothing sectarian about how religiously minded teachers proceed with ‘enlightening‘ students on the sheer importance of Bible as the actual word of God. The problem became even acuter ever since the policy of multiculturalism has gained official status in this country – after all, if White students are being an opportunity to learn about the Bible in public schools, then how come Muslim students are not being provided with an equal opportunity to learn about Quran, for example? Is not America all about equality? However, the seeming appropriateness of this type of suggestion does not stand much ground, simply because these suggestions serve as yet additional proof as to the inability of neo-Liberal policy-makers to rely on their sense of rationale while addressing socio-political challenges. And, the reason for this is simple – even a brief analysis of the issue would leave no doubt as to the fact that it is conceptually fallacious to even compare the essentially sectarian practice of teaching about Bible in public schools, with the proposed practice of providing representatives of ethnic minorities with an opportunity to actively explore their religious affiliation, while in a public classroom environment. For us to substantiate the validity of this statement, we will have to begin from afar.

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The reason why, until comparatively recent times, American citizens did not think that there was anything wrong with the country’s Presidents never ceasing to proclaim their adherence to Christianity, even though they were assumed Constitution’s guarantors, is because, throughout centuries, American society remained racially and culturally homogeneous. Therefore, the reference to “one God”, contained in the Allegiance to the Flag, used to be looked upon as simply the reference to the existential sovereignty of the American nation’s original creators, regardless of particulars of their religious affiliation, or the lack of thereof.

It is important to understand that originally, the American nation was the nation of White Protestant colonists, as opposed to being simply the ‘nation of immigrants’, as is the case nowadays. Therefore, the seeming inconsistency between theses contained in First Amendment and the fact that America’s most prominent politicians have traditionally been associated with Christianity can be explained by the specifics of the White racial psyche – just as it was the case with early Puritans, which considered themselves the ‘chosen people of true Israel’, their descendants continue to relate to Christianity only formally. As it was rightly suggested in Michael Newdow’s article “A Response to David Toy: “It’s ‘Under God,’ for God’s Sake!”: “There is much historical evidence supporting the notion that the fifty-five White males who stuck a three-fifths clause and a guarantee of the perpetuation of slavery into the constitutional text believed in a racial hierarchy. A Pledge containing the words “one nation under White superiority” would be at least as justifiable as the current Pledge” (2006, 64). Therefore, the spirit of true Christianity had very little effect on the formation of the American nation, simply because unlike what is the case with Muslims or Catholics, Protestants never needed God as their ultimate benefactor, but rather as some distant authority that does not intervene in their lives actively. This explains how America was able to become the world’s most powerful nation – throughout the country’s existence, even the most ardent country’s Christians used to think of faith-related issues as such that only formally corresponded to how they used to proceed with addressing life’s challenges. For them, their religion was simply an additional instrument of attaining emotional comfort – nothing else.

It goes without saying, of course, that some Christian teachers (especially older ones) do strive to impose their religious worldviews upon students while taking advantage of 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision to promote their personal agenda. However, it does not mean that, because of it, the principle of separation between Church and State in the domain of America’s public education must be abolished. The reason for this is simple – unlike what was the case with Western Christianity, the theological essence of other major religions has never been affected by considerations of legal appropriateness. For example, even today’s most progressive Muslims continue to think of Islam as the actual way of life.

In his article “Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation”, Roger Friedland states, “The Quran is not just about the relationship of the individual to God, but about a politically organized community of believers, the umma, called by their sovereign. The Quran spells out a political religion” (2001, 128). Whereas; America’s Christians (specifically White Protestants) have never ceased to profess essentially urban values of individualism, intellectual exaltation, tolerance, and open-mindedness – religiously minded representatives of racial minorities continue to profess the rural values of intellectual inflexibility, perceptional tribalism and collectivism while assessing surrounding reality through the irrational lenses of their religions’ highly mechanized rituals, and while actively striving to create their societies within American society, as opposed to adopting the American way of life.

After all, even though Bible-thumpers have traditionally exerted great influence upon the formation of the country’s educational policies, America never ceased remaining a secular state. However, once Third World’s tribalistic religions find their way into America’s system of public education, it will only be a matter of time before this country turns clerical. As it has been rightly suggested in Benjamin Berger’s article “The Cultural Limits of Legal Tolerance”: “The lens of legal multiculturalism – the lens applied by juridical and most academic accounts alike – obscures the fact that the contemporary encounter between religion and the constitutional rule of law is a cross-cultural encounter” (2008, 247). The main idea of Thomas Franck’s article “Is Personal Freedom a Western Value?”, resonates with that of Berger’s: “There is an fundamental distinction between the Western liberal tradition of personal autonomy, democracy, the rule of law, religious freedom and toleration, on the one hand, and the rest of the world’s regard for social cohesion and conformity to community values, on the other” (1997, 603). Yet, as we have suggested earlier, thanks to the promoters of multiculturalism, we can no longer talk about the concept of Western living as something unrelated to the concept of Third World living – as of today, all large American and European cities feature areas indistinguishable from Third World slums.

While ‘celebrating diversity’, the residents of these areas continue to come up with demands for even more special rights and privileges. One of these demands is being concerned with creating yet additional opportunities for the children of recently arrived immigrants to be able to explore their religious uniqueness, while even in public schools’ classrooms.

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For example, in 2006, Shabina Begum (a Pakistani girl whose parents came illegally to Britain) had sued Denbigh High School on the account of school’s teachers forbidding her to enter the class with a black cloak over her head, which Muslim women are supposed to be wearing at all times, while in public. (Malik, 2009). Yet, despite the fact, that Britain’s Pakistani community was strongly supporting Begum’s stance on the issue, the British Court of Appeal had denied the validity of this girl’s grievances, on the ground that Britain has not been completely turned into Northern Pakistan yet. Nevertheless, as time goes by, there are going to be more cases like that of Begum’s coming to the attention of the public eye in Western countries, simply because these countries’ demographic fabric continues to undergo a drastic transformation, as we speak. How may seemingly logical demands of a complete religious freedom, on the part of representatives of racial minorities, be addressed?

According to proponents of political correctness, the fact that Christian fundamentalists in America have been exerting influence upon the process of designing educational policies, contrary to the principle of separation between Church and State, automatically means that fundamentalist Muslims, Hindus, Confucians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and even the practitioners of Voodoo cult should be provided with the same opportunity. While coming up with these suggestions, the proponents of ‘religious multiculturalism’ refer to the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, passed by the UN in 1981.

In her article “Advancing the Freedom of Religion or Belief through the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination”, Donna J. Sullivan went as far as implying that this sophistically sounding but utterly meaningless UN’s Declaration is capable of altering the foremost tenets of U.S. Constitution: “Because it is enunciated in normative terms, elevating the rights and freedoms in question to norm­ative status, the Declaration has a strong legal effect” (1988, 488). We will dare to disagree – it is not only that Declaration has no legal implications, but it is also being deprived of any logical sense, whatsoever. With the same degree of effectiveness, UN bureaucrats could have passed the Declaration on the Elimination of World’s Unhappiness. In the next part of this paper, we will outline what we believe would constitute a real solution to the problem.


As history shows, the only effective solutions to socio-political and religious issues have always been the most logical and the most radical ones. This observation proves the validity of the principle of Occam’s razor – “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. Nowadays, even seemingly intelligent individuals often experience a hard time while trying to reconcile utterly irreconcilable notions of religion and social progress.

Yet, only a few of them can realize a simple fact that the only reason why Western countries feature the world’s highest standards of living is that the influence of religion in these countries has been traditionally limited by legislative acts that separate Church from State. The lesser is the number of religious fanatics in every particular Western society, the better this society fares. For example, the number of native-born citizens that attend Church on regular basis in such countries as Denmark and Sweden accounts for only 2% of the total population (Toy, 2005). The reason for this is simple – whereas; science strives to expand people’s intellectual horizons, religion aims at closing these horizons down as ‘immoral’. America’s founding fathers were perfectly aware of this fact, which is why they considered it the matter of foremost importance to limit the influence of a religious clergy upon society.

In the article from which we have already quoted, Thomas Franck outlines the conceptual premise as to how people who strive to explore their religiosity at the expense of undermining America’s national integrity should be dealt with: “In the United States, the constitutional rulings of the Supreme Court made it increas­ingly clear, as early as the mid-nineteenth and certainly by the mid-twentieth centuries, that free conscience and speech could not be curtailed – particularly not to secure conformity of religious belief, but also not to protect the tender sensibilities of believers” (1997, 617). Therefore, for as long as America continues to remain a civilized country, both: the practice of teaching religion and the practice of teaching about religion should simply have no place in America’s system of public education.

It is perfectly understandable that if policymakers adopt this approach to dealing with the issue, it will provide representatives of racial minorities with yet another excuse to whine about ‘institutionalized racism’. However, if they want to be allowed to live in America, they would have to adjust to the American way of life, and not the other way around. Just as it is the case with the rest of Western countries, the U.S. is a secular state, in which citizens can only go about exploring their religious identity, for as long as it does not affect the civil rights and freedoms of other citizens. If religious individuals have a hard time realizing this simple fact, they should be encouraged to ‘celebrate‘ their religion elsewhere, while simultaneously experiencing the lack of basic conveniences that even atheistic Americans take for granted.

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It is important to understand that, even though empirical sciences do not hold answers to all life’s dilemmas yet, the answers they do provide to people are legitimate; whereas, the world’s religions do not provide people with even a single answer as to how should they deal with life’s problems, which would hold any practical value. This is exactly the reason why, after they become ill, the world’s religious leaders choose in favor of undergoing medical treatment in privately owned Swiss clinics, as opposed to relying on ‘God’s miracles’ alone. Therefore, there is simply no other way of dealing with overly religious citizens’ existential inadequateness, but making it clear to them that their persistence with trying to impose their religious views on others (even in form of exposing cognitively adequate citizens to the sight of how they explore their religious identity), represents the violation of U.S. Constitution and therefore, is the subject to criminal law


Berger, Benjamin “The Cultural Limits of Legal Tolerance”. Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 21.2 (2008): 245-277. Print.

Franck, Thomas “Is Personal Freedom a Western Value?”. The American Journal of International Law 91.4 (1997): 593-627. Print.

Friedland, Roger “Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation”. Annual Review of Sociology 27.5 (2001):125-152. Print.

Malik, Maleiha “Religious Freedom and Multiculturalism: R (Shabina Begum) v Denbigh High School”. Kings Law Journal 19.2 (2008): 377-390. Print.

Newdow, Michael “A Response to David Toy: “It’s ‘Under God,’ for God’s Sake!”. Journal of Law and Education 35.1(2006): 53-65. Print.

Sullivan, Donna “Advancing the Freedom of Religion or Belief through the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Religious Intolerance and Discrimination”. The American Journal of International Law 82.3 (1988): 487-520. Print.

Toy, David “The Pledge: The Constitutionality of an American Icon”. Journal of Law and Education 34.1 (2005): 25-66. Print.

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