Friendswood Junior High and Teaching About Religion

I am very concerned with an incident that has happened in Friendswood, a junior high school in the Houston area. A principle, Ms. Robin Lowe, has lost her job because she brought in speakers to teach the students the basics about Islam. I have seen the powerpoint presentation, and there was nothing in that presentation expect the bare minimum basics of Muslim belief and practices. Ms. Lowe did this in response to a racial incident in the school which the Council on American Islamic Relations was planning to report as a hate crime to the FBI. The community's response was vicious outrage that their children would be taught about Islam without notifying the parents first so that they could pull their children out of the lecture. The principle has been fired.

What a pity it is that Americans are so uneducated about the subject of religion. Since we live in an international environment, where the globe is our home, we ought to be following Ms. Lowe's example and educating ourselves in terms of basic religious literacy. In fact, I not only think that we should be educating our children in the public schools about world religions, I think that the parents should come along and learn something too, especially the difference between teaching about religion versus teaching how to be religious.

The separation of church and state has to do with devotional practices - keeping public schools from teaching children how to be religious. This is very different from teaching children about the major teachings and practices and history of various world religions. Parents at Friendswood were up in arms because the speakers said in their presentation that Allah was the name of God. Allah is the Arabic word for "God." Why the ruckus? Teaching children that God has different names in different languages and different faith traditions is just a basic fact. It has nothing to do with teaching devotional religion.

Most people believe that teaching religion and teaching about religion are the same thing because all most Americans have ever encountered in their lives is religious instruction that teaches us how to be religious in a particular faith tradition. Religious education has been left to our families and religious institutions - our churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques - because, in our attempt to remain faithful to the separation of church and state, we have tended to keep all religious education out of the public schools, whether devotional or not.

As a society, we have not been able to distinguish between learning how to practice a religion and learning about the history, beliefs, and practices of a given religion. Our children are not even taught the basics of their own faith traditions, let alone those of the major world religions. It is not until a child reaches college and elects to take a Religious Studies course that such subjects are even broached. When students start to take my courses, they do not even know the basic historical facts about Christianity, information that children in sixth grade should know.

Has Texas recognized this, since the state has recently agreed to allow for the creation of an elective course about the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments in the public schools? I have my doubts, and they are becoming more serious every day. With all I have said in this post, you might expect me to support Texas' decision. But instead, I am tremendously worried because I am not convinced that the people who will be teaching such a course have had training in Religious Studies to know the difference between teaching the Bible and teaching about it. I worry that such courses, unless this distinction is understood, will degenerate into little more than bible study gatherings promoting contemporary Christian interpretation of the texts they will read.

In this new Texas state-authorized Bible class, there is also no provision for teaching about other religions, which makes me even more concerned. And now, in the Friendswood incident, I have noticed that this state-authorized class is already being used against the teaching of other religions. Mr. David Bradley, a State Board of Education member, said that the class about Islam that Ms. Lowe put together can't be justified by comparing it to teaching the state-authorized Bible class, calling it "a fallacious argument."

Why, Mr. Bradley? Teaching about religion should be the same no matter what religion we are talking about. Or is Mr. David Bradley privileging the Bible, by which he means the Christian Bible? Is there a hidden Christian agenda behind the new state-authorized Bible class? What Ms. Robin Lowe did should be held up as an example for our community to follow, not a reason for her to be fired. What is happening in Friendswood today is a disgrace to the public school system in Texas.

Why do we continue to foster illiteracy when it comes to religion? What are we scared of? Becoming religiously tolerant? Understanding each other and ourselves better?