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Religion in American Public Schools Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 31st, 2021

As of today, the educational reality in America continues to be affected by the ongoing debate as to what should be deemed the purpose of religious education in public schools. On the one hand, there are a number of policy-makers/teachers who actively resist the idea that students should be required to familiarize themselves with the basic tenets of the world’s major religions, in the first place, as something inconsistent with both the separation of church and state principle and the policy of multiculturalism.

On the other hand, however, there are also many educators who believe that the studying of religion should be included as a curriculum’s integral element and that the classroom-based learning process must endorse a religious standpoint on the nature of things. In this paper, the author will review the recently published scholarly articles of relevance that discuss the concerned subject matter from different angles, while outlining the most notable of the would-be acquired insights, in this regard.

The conducted literature review reveals that one of the most notable discursive stances on the issue can be loosely defined as “pro-religious”. While arguing that religion is a thoroughly legitimate academic subject, its advocates commonly refer to the assumption that it is specifically up to the so-called “moral majority” in the US to have the final word when it comes to assessing the appropriateness of educational policies.

For example, according to Feinberg (2014), “The United States is a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles and thus to fail to teach religion is to threaten the basic fabric of our country” (p. 395). What appears to be the most problematic about such a claim is that there is no universally adopted definition as to what qualifies a particular nation to be considered “Christian”, especially given the fact that American society has long ago adopted secularism as the main principle of its functioning.

Another common argument, voiced in favor of ensuring that there are strong religious overtones to public education in the US, is concerned with the assumption that requiring students to learn about religions will help them to grow into the socially responsible citizens, genuinely committed to trying to make this world a better place (Craig, 2018). The actual rationale behind such an idea is reflective of its endorsers’ yet another belief that there is much social beneficence to just about every religion, especially if it happened to be of the Judeo-Christian origin.

Nevertheless, as time goes on, the “pro-religious” discourse in the domain of public education appears to turn increasingly secularized, in the sense of emphasizing primarily the societal significance of having religious classes in schools (Passe & Willox, 2009). In this regard, the reference is usually made to the idea that no person can be deemed fully educated without knowing the basic facts about the world’s religions, in general, and the cognitive specifics of one’s religious worldview, in particular.

While reviewing the thematically relevant materials, it also proved possible to identify the main objections to religious education in America’s public schools. Probably the most notable of them has to do with the fact that in light of the recent discoveries in the fields of physics, biology, and sociology, no religion can be regarded even slightly credible. What this means is that requiring students to attend classes on religion would be intentionally misleading them as to how the world turns around (Howley, Howley, & Dudek, 2016). In other words, the very idea that students should be required to learn about religion is inconsistent with the main function of education: to make learners ever more knowledgeable about the actual ways of the world.

Another major objection to the educational practice in question is that it is inconsistent with the essence of socio-political and demographic realities in contemporary America (Jackson & Gray, 2019). Because the world’s major Judeo-Christian religions have long ago proven themselves capable of inciting violence and justifying atrocities, there is a good rationale to exercise caution while exposing students to the religiously sensitive matters in the ethnically diverse classroom.

Nevertheless, even though the issue of religious education in public schools continues to spark much controversy, the reviewed sources indicate that there are at least a few points of agreement with both “pro-religious” and “secular” educators, as to what should be the practice’s actual objective. For example, it now represents a common assumption within the educational community that it is indeed very important to ensure that students are provided with the opportunity to increase the level of their religious literacy, without being subjected to any form of religious indoctrination. The most logical approach to ensuring that this is indeed the case is designing the learning process in a religiously/ideologically non-biased manner, compatible with the overall vector of the society’s development.

As Brockman (2016) noted, “The intentionally pluralistic and academic approach (to conceptualizing religious studies in public schools) … does a better job of meeting the aims of public education in a liberal-democratic society than the far less pluralistic and more confessional one” (p. 321). In this regard, the teacher’s aim is to encourage students to adopt an intellectually flexible outlook on the function of religion, consistent with the policy of multiculturalism.

As one can infer from the reviewed articles, the main precondition for teachers to be able to succeed in striving to accomplish this particular objective is their ability to teach about religion in a discursively neutral way, irrespective of the specifics of these individuals’ own ethnoreligious affiliation: “The teacher must maintain a stance of impartiality and refrain from sharing her own religious or non-religious understandings while encouraging students to share their own” (Bakker & Avest, 2014, p. 412). This, in turn, will require them to never cease being observant of the following principles of guaranteeing the societal appropriateness of how they proceed to address the task: tolerance, mutual respect, and intellectual openness.

Such an idea correlates well with the neoliberal outlook on the purpose of education, in general, and the educational function of religious studies, in particular. After all, once assessed from the mentioned ideological perspective, public schools are best seen as the “unbiased marketplaces”, in which students’ religious awareness is expected to prove as a valuable asset within the context of how they go about engaging with the “active plurality” of the surrounding social reality (Bayhan & Caner, 2017). That is while learning about different religions, students are assumed to be broadening their intellectual horizons: something that is supposed to make it much easier for them to embrace diversity.

This, however, is easier said than done. After all, being essentially Eurocentric, the secularized approach to teaching students about religion does not take into account the fact that, contrary to what the neoliberal policy-makers assume to be the case, the intricacies of one’s ethnocultural affiliation do affect the individual’s perception of religion to a considerable degree (Thompson, 2019). Whereas, the majority of White students do not seem to experience much difficulty when assessing the significance of just about any religion from a secular standpoint, this is far from being the case with many of their ethnically visible classmates who were brought up in the strongly religious families of the recently arrived immigrants from the Third World.

This creates a certain paradox. On the one hand, religious education is expected to foster tolerance in young people. On the other hand, however, the very assumption that the world’s religions must be treated with respect calls for taking into account the peculiarities of how their committed affiliates tend to address life-challenges. And, it does not represent much of a secret that strongly religious individuals are naturally driven to be trying to impose their worldviews on others (Seward & Khan, 2016). To be respecting such people means to be allowing them to act in a religiously intolerant manner.

Another obstacle in the way of ensuring the effectiveness of religious studies in public schools has to do with the fact that, as the practice indicates, many parents consider it their constitutionally guaranteed right to exert heavy influence on the formation of religious views in their children (Giorgi & Annicchino, 2019). Therefore, if the latter are to be exposed to the strongly secularized teaching strategies on the subject of religion, it is likely to result in amplifying the already existing social tensions within the society

Finally, there is a deep-seated inconsistency between the idea that it is possible to ensure the discursive unbiasedness of the classroom-based religious learning and the fact that the world’s major religions are strongly biased/intolerant, by definition (Sherkat, 2017). This brings in question whether it is indeed necessary to require students to attend classes on religion, in the first place, and implies that the actual key to working out a proper strategy for teaching religion in public schools should be sought for in the political rather than strictly educational domain.

In light of the earlier acquired analytical acumens into the discussed issue, it appears that the ongoing debate as to what should be deemed the purpose of religious education in public schools is likely to continue triggering much controversy for many years to come. After all, even though the reviewed articles do contain a number of valuable observations, with respect to what are the practice’s objective challenges, one cannot help noticing the strongly speculative sounding of the suggested approaches to ensuring the effectiveness of religious education in public schools. It is the truth that most of these articles are filled with the seemingly sophisticated but essentially meaningless terms, such as “active plurality”.

This, however, cannot be regarded as being indicative of the reviewed materials’ high value: it is rather vice versa. It is one thing to suggest that educators should adopt an impartial approach to teaching students about religion, but it is another thing being able to come up with the scientifically sound advice as to how this may be done in practice. Apparently, while discussing the issue most authors could not help feeling constrained by the considerations of political correctness. Therefore, it will be appropriate to conclude this paper by suggesting that, as of today, there is very little hope that the educational community will be able to work out the universally applicable standards for teaching religion in public schools any time soon.


Bakker, C., & Avest, I. (2014). Coming out religiously: Life orientation in public schools. Religious Education, 109(4), 407-423.

Bayhan, S., & Caner, A. (2017). Schools in the nexus of neoliberal urban transformation and education policy change. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 15(3), 145-173.

Brockman, D. (2016). Educating for pluralism, or against it? Lessons from Texas and Québec on teaching religion in the public schools, Religion & Education, 43(3), 317-343.

Craig, W. (2018). In defense of absolute creationism. The Review of Metaphysics, 71(3), 445-467.

Feinberg, W. (2014). An assessment of arguments for teaching religion in public schools in the United States. Religious Education, 109(4), 394-405.

Giorgi, A., & Annicchino, P. (2019). Do not cross the line: The state influence on religious education. Politics & Religion, 12(5), 55-78.

Howley, A., Howley, C., & Dudek, M. (2016). The ins and outs of rural teachers: Who are atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 31(2), 1-22.

Jackson, J., & Gray, K. (2019). When a good god makes bad people: Testing a theory of religion and immorality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(2), 1-28.

Passe, J., & Willox, L. (2009). Teaching religion in America’s public schools: A necessary disruption. The Social Studies, 100(3), 102-106.

Seward, D., & Khan, S. (2016). Towards an understanding of Muslim American adolescent high school experiences. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling, 38(1), 1-11.

Sherkat, D. (2017). Religion, politics, and Americans’ confidence in science. Politics & Religion, 10(1), 137-160.

Thompson, S. (2019). The expression of religious identities and the control of public space. Ethnicities, 19(2), 231-250.

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