Wednesday, June 11, 2008

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?


Pastor Bob said...

Amen, you preach it April!

I had to wait until college to discover what other religions believed. In grade school I didn't even know why Catholics had dirty foreheads on a Wed. in Feb.!

Surely learning the basic facts about all religions, particularly in the multicultural environment in the USA is essential. Otherwise how can you even understand how your Hindu neighbor looks at the world? Or why your Jewish neighbor builts a hut once a year?

Jared said...

Wow! So, teaching the Bible is allowed and teaching basic facts about Islam is not? How can they get away with that? That sounds exactly like what the disestablishment clause is supposed to protect against--the state privileging one religious tradition over another!

This reminds me of the whole "ten commandments judge" from Alabama, who set up this gigantic granite engraving of the ten commandments in front of the courthouse. The Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional because of disestablishment between church and state. Part of the argument for the monument was that the Hebrew Bible was a basis of the American legal system (I guess except for Leviticus). They argued that the Supreme Court building itself also has an engraving of biblical characters. BUT the Supreme Court also includes the Koran, the Code of Hammurabi, English Common Law, and other such legal precedents--it recognizes them all and is not, at least in monument form, privileging one over the others.

I personally do not see how Texas can get away with teaching the Bible in a public institution while excluding teaching about Islam--it seems like something that could be taken before the Supreme Court if anyone down there wanted to challenge it.

In addition, the line between teaching about religion and teaching religion can be thin. It makes a world of difference, that thin line, but it is easily crossed. And, as you said with the bible class, I have some reservations that it will be consistently maintained.

And yet our religious literacy is dreadfully low. I think Stephen Prothero has a book out on American religious literacy--haven't read it, so I do not know if it is any good. So, the question is how to teach about religion without having teachers trip over the line into teaching religion.

Adam said...

I personally do not see how Texas can get away with teaching the Bible in a public institution while excluding teaching about Islam--it seems like something that could be taken before the Supreme Court if anyone down there wanted to challenge it.

I'm gonna say something that could be interpreted as mean-spirited & stereotypical. But isn't a reason Texas can get away with it that it is Texas rather than, say, Vermont? That it's a result of a Bible-Belt culture? That being said, I suspect the measure will be challenged.

I went to a Jesuit high school and received a quarter of instruction about world religions. It played a role in my decision to abandon Christianity. I wonder if there's an unspoken fear among parents in Friendswood that exposure to information about other religions could lead some of their children astray.

bulbul said...


Stephen Prothero has a book out on American religious literacy
It is quite good, actually. He does oversimplify sometimes, for example I found this quote quite amusing:

Thanks to compulsory religious education (which in Austria begins
in elementary schools), European students can name the twelve apostles and the Seven Deadly Sins, but they wouldn't be caught dead going to church or synagogue themselves.

There is, of course, no compulsory religious education in Europe, most countries offer a course in ethics as an alternative. And there are many countries with devoted young believers, most notably Poland, Slovakia and Italy.
The best part of the book is the chapter 'What Americans Need To Know' which contains a brief entries on the most important aspects, beliefs and personalities of major world religions. Prothero's definitions are not perfect, but it's a good start.

lightseeker said...

Excellent post, April. You should think about submitting this as a letter to the editor of the newspaper - go for it!

I, too, did not learn about other religions until I got to college and *elected* to take such courses.

I find it appalling that most people don't realize how closely related Christianity, Islam and Judaism are, all tracing their roots back to Abraham.

Fear, anger and hate stem from ignorance, which only serves to divide people. Division is not what's needed in today's global neighborhood. Let's eradicate ignorance, not just in our schools, but in the general public at large. Tolerance and understanding, with a healthy appreciation for the differences, foster unity within a community (even a global community), and basic education *about* the world's various religions is a good start.


Will Howard said...

The Friendswood community did not do this. A vocal minority did. What threw fire on the event was the principal (who didn't lose her job, she requested re-assignment) forgot to send permission slips to the parents. Consequently, it was a surprize. Somebody quickly called the local Right radio talk shows and it rose. Some folks found politicians critizing CAIR and matters escalated. Please don't characterize Texas stereotyically (at least not always). Oddly enough, to fulfill the stereotype, the new law only permits the Old and New Testaments, I've been told. Consequently, it could easily be challenged easily, and I've been told that some folks realized that and let it pass so that it could be challenged so that they could entangle the militant Christians.

JCEdwardsStAndrews said...

Nice post. A little over a year ago, because of some random connections and because I needed the money, I actually reviewed the two curricula that were being proposed for the elective on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Basically, they were polar opposites. One had a picture of the Constitution on the front and was filled with inaccuracies along with a fundamentalist bent. However, the second was supported by a broad range of scholars and was in my opinion, dare I use the phrase, fair and balanced. Anyways, I was curious if anyone knows which of these books were chosen to be used in Texas schools?

John Edwards

José Solano said...

I’ve always thought it’s an excellent idea to offer comparative religion courses in the public schools. Some schools have these. Nevertheless, good history courses always discuss basic precepts of the major religions in an historical context.

I taught high school history some years back and covered Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. in some detail. The Protestant Reformation was also covered in detail as were many other religious movements that impact society.

I do remember that at a high school I was at a large group of students was taken to hear the Dalai Lama speak. There was some controversy over this as it was very much doubted that a group of students would have been taken to hear Billy Graham speak. That did not deter several teachers from taking numerous students. I’m quite certain there would have been a powerful eruption from the liberal wing of the community and the media if the students had been taken hear Billy Graham. No significant opposition arouse from their hearing the Dalai Lama.

I like the idea of having students hear both of them and many others. After all, “What are we scared of? Becoming religiously tolerant? Understanding each other and ourselves better?”

Will Howard said...

If near-facts are useful, according to some sources, religions other than Christian or Hebrew texts could be taught ("does not prohibit"), according to the wording in HB1287 subsection I and J; depending on level of student demand and the religion's impact on history or culture. As for the curriculum, at the moment, no further approval steps will be taken until the Attorney General makes some sort of ruling. AG may not get around to ruling before the next Leg.
As for a text book, there is none adopted; actually no official "call" for such a text will be done until 2010 and will not likely be available until 2013. In the meantime, ISD's can use comparable funds to purchase materials "at their discretion."
Without an official separate curriculum, in the meantime ISDs can use the English Curr for "Individual Studies at chapter 110.46 or Social Studies Curr "Special Studies" at chapter 113.38. See those at
Teachers must (?) be qualified in English or Social Studies with coursework in the topic at hand, i.e., no walk-ins without certificates.

flowergrrl said...

I spend three to four weeks each fall teaching an overview of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to 6th grade social studies students in a mid-sized Texas city. I am very clear before beginning the unit that we are learning ABOUT religion, not learning TO BE religious. Many of my students are surprised to learn that we actually have Jews and Muslims in our city. (We have 2 synagogues and a large mosque, along with 38 Baptist churches, one with 14,000 members.) Almost none know of the common origins or common beliefs of the three faith traditions.

Though our curriculum requires that we cover the material, the provided text allots about 6 pages to the subject. Thankfully our local ministers, rabbis and Islamic scholars have been most willing to help me expand my own understanding and to put their beliefs into terms which are meaningful to this age group. I know that other teachers are much less comfortable than I am with this part of the curriculum and rush through it.

As a parent of children in this age group as well as a teacher, I believe that Adam's comment is spot-on: some parents are definitely concerned that this information could undermine the faith in which they are raising their children. I think they're the noisy minority, though.

And yes, Texas politics is dominated by fundamentalist Christian outlooks, especially on the State Board of Education. Those of us who believe that religious freedom is important need to pay attention. What our oversized state does has an effect not only on our large student population but also on what goes into textbooks across the nation.

I don't know how we can hope to educate our children so that they thrive in the 21st century world if we can't inform them accurately about the beliefs that guide those with whom we share the planet.

lightseeker said...

Kudos to you, flowergrrl. Keep on with your wonderful, valuable work with the students!

Tony said...

This type of case and its ramifications is the exact type of thing the Texas Freedom Network ( is working on, they advance "a mainstream agenda of religious freedom and individual liberties to counter the religious right."

hope said...

I was a student at Friendswood elementary school, Jr. High and high school and I personally disagree with the previously stated comments. I know for a fact, because I took the class, that Friendswood offers a course on world history. this course informs students of religions all around the world, not just Christianity. people in Friendswood are not scared that if their child learns about other religions that they will then turn away from their own, they just want to ensure that within this class of religion, all facts are accurate. the class I was in had me challenge my faith, but by challenging it, I grew stronger in it. this is the same for several students. and as I was informed, the bible course is optional and is not one that is forced on students. they have a choice. students are fully aware that the general term bible is referring to the Christian one. evidence for this assumption is placed in every court room. the fact is, no one should be fired for telling students about other religions. that is why they have not. as far as I am concerned, this information needs further analysis because children have been taught about other religion since elementary school in Friendswood. to assume that this town has no tolerance toward other religions is false. every student in Friendswood who is educated in their schools criteria can testify to this. it is offensive to place such a rude statement to not only our citizens and students, but to the entire town. yes, our community is mainly of the Christian faith and yes, we believe it is the truth, but even so, we are staying true to our foundation to which our community was established upon. the Quakers. and not only to the quakers beliefs but also our nations. this nation was founded one nation under God. this nation is a Christian nation and because of this, America has had several blessing fall upon it. God is a covering over our land and as long as we stay under His covering, then we will stay under His will for our lives. I have known this community to be one that tries their best to be one of love and of Christian beliefs. if this statement against it was true, then I apologize for someone’s act that was wrongfully committed. the truth is that unfortunately every one makes mistakes and although this does not excuse our mistakes, it does bring us to a state to which all can relate to and be sympathetic to for all have fallen short and it is by grace to which they are forgiven. it is wrong to fire someone for their sharing of knowledge that wasn't forced upon members, but it is not wrong to give students the option to want to learn more about the bible to which led our founding fathers to the establishment of this nation.