Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
A religious worldview will allow or perhaps
embrace supernatural conceptions of the
general order of existence that are not present
in a nonreligious worldview.
Both religious and nonreligious worldviews have been present and important
throughout recorded history. The worldviews of persons who are following a
world religion today tend to include the following cognitive notions:
There is a universal spirit, god, deity or divine entity
This divinity has established an eternal moral order that, in part at
least, can be known to human beings
People have the duty to follow eternal moral dictates
This human conduct has long-term (beyond individual death)
The above four-part listing begins Chapter 1 ("The Religious View of Life")
of a student text for adolescents written by Brant Abrahamson and Fred
Smith (Thinking About Religion from a Global Perspective, 1997). The
authors characterize their four major elements as representing "…a life
understanding that unites Jews, Christians and Muslims with Hindus and
Buddhists as well as the followers of many newer faiths. All believe in a
universal intelligence that provides a framework for human living." By way of
holding to a religion, a person's way of life is directed toward the realization
of some transcendent end-state.
It is important to note that any person’s worldview need not be, and in fact
probably is not, congruous with the fundamentals of any single religious
tradition or sect. A worldview is acquired on an ongoing basis, and many an
individual's worldview framework blends religious notions and practices he
or she acquires from a multitude of experiences over time. A person with
exposure to several religious traditions is likely to have a life outlook that is
"cobbled" from the varied experiences and understandings to which they
have been exposed.
Defining "Religion" for School Curricula
A recurring challenge to those teaching about religions in public schools is
that of defining religion in a practical way for the youngsters. Abrahamson
and Smith, just mentioned, are classroom teachers who have been teaching
directly about religion since the 1960s, and they report satisfaction in using
the language of the above "definition" (as they further flesh it out in their
materials) with youngsters and with parents and the varied stakeholders in
their community. Their "four-notion" definition supports their making clear to
youngsters the significance of conceptual elements as "a framework for
The typical focus of school study about religion is on specific institutionalized
sets of beliefs, dogmas, ethical prescriptions, and practices that center in
devotion to and service of a particular deity or deities. This facilitates
academic study about religions in terms of history of creedal formation and
comparative study. It is necessary, however, that one present religion in
terms apropos to the civic aims of public education.
A Need to Address the Force of Conscience
If students are to grow in understanding of the relevance of religious liberty,
American style, to our country's guarantees of citizens' civil rights, then
teachers who teach about religion need to clarify for adolescents the "power
of conscience" of human life that underlies any individual's ultimate loyalty to
a religion. Teachers need also to emphasize that people who have a
nonreligious worldview have the same power of conscience, but that their
conceptions (symbols, "aura of factuality," etc.) differ.
Viewing religion and nonreligion as "ways of life," each way informed by
conceptual elements, is useful. The power of conscience one can derive
from a worldview (religious or nonreligious) needs to be made clear to
More Example Definitions of "Religion"
Some definitions more than others bring forth the notion of this trait (power
of conscience). They do so by way of specific mention of the emotional
aspect one finds wrapped into the cognitive framework of any worldview.
Clifford Geertz writes (in "Religion as a Cultural System," In The Religious
Situation, edited by D. Cutler, Beacon Press, 1968, p.643) that religion is
"…a system of symbols…formulating conceptions of a general order of
existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that
the moods and motivation seem uniquely realistic."
Along the same lines, Leszek Kolakowski (in Religion, Oxford University
Press, 1982, p.191) describes religion as "…the realm of worship wherein
understanding, knowledge, the feeling of participation in the ultimate reality
(whether or not a personal god is meant) and moral commitment appear as
a single act."
It seems important that any definition for religion that a teacher uses be
practicable and also capture the emotional/conceptual components of the
outlook that make the freedom of conscience our nation guarantees to all
citizens, whatever their worldview, so vital.
Corrections and comments are invited. [Last updated: 5/02/01]
Author: Mynga Futrell, Ph.D.