Problems with the Education System pt. 3 – The Absence of Religion

Problem #2: The Absence of Religion

When the topic of religion is brought up amongst teachers in a public school, the “separation of church and state” is frequently spouted as the reason why there should be no religious activity in school.  Whether it be content in the course curriculum or simply a Christian club meeting during lunch break, the tiresome repetition of church and state separation seems to be enough to justify shutting religion out of education.  However, appealing to this part of the Constitution demonstrates a misunderstanding of what the writers of the Constitution had in mind.

The constitutional separation of church and state is there to protect society from a theocratic style government.  In Canada, the educational system is run by the state, therefore, religious instruction is prohibited.  In regards to religious groups, like Young Life or Youth Unlimited, the complaint that they too should be kept separate from the public school is unfounded because they are not teaching curriculum and function more in a social capacity interacting with students.  What can be better understood is how religion plays a role in the curriculum and how the misunderstanding of religion’s place in the curriculum jeopardizes the ability to deliver a human-centered education.

In a lesson with grade 8 students regarding the Protestant Reformation, as I explained the penitential cycle and compared it to the Protestant perspective, a question was raised about not being allowed to teach “this stuff” in school.  What the student meant by “stuff” was religious content; yet the text demanded an understanding of Martin Luther’s notion of justification by faith.  Earlier in the year, when introducing the basics of Christianity and the Crucifixion while teaching on the conversion of Constantine, a student innocently asked, “why did Jesus have to die?” while looking at a medieval painting of Christ on the Cross.  It is not uncommon to have senior students approach any religious content with skepticism first, and many, when asked about worldviews and what their belief system is, often contrast belief in a religion with belief in science. When discussing students with other teachers, the phrase, “oh she’s very religious,” or “their family is very religious,” is said followed by the condescending assumption that this naïve belief is tolerated but not respected.[1]

These examples indicate a troubling paradox that is created by the idea that religion holds no legitimate place in education.  If students are bringing questions and assumptions about religion into the classroom and more importantly, curriculum includes topics directly related to religion, how can teachers address these topics and questions while a large number of they themselves are incapable of teaching religious content adequately?  It is clear that religion is a part of the curriculum seeing as it is part of everyday life for millions of people both past and present.

Why then is it important that a legitimate respect for religion be included in the public education system? 

The answer goes back to what was said above about the purpose of education itself.  If the aim of learning is to “know thyself” and continually explore what it means to be human in order to give meaning to existence, then the questions that religion asks are essential to this discovery; it points to a greater meaning to life.  St. Augustine summarizes the importance of studying in a context of greater meaning in Sermons, “He who looks at the characters in a book, but doesn’t know their meaning, what they refer to, will praise the book with his eyes, but his spirit will not understand.  But someone who can read will praise this work of art and also understand its meaning, for he will not only be able to see, like everyone else, but will also be able to read.  And only someone who has learned to read can do so.”  How can a student understand why Martin Luther’s idea of justification by faith was radically different from the prevailing Catholic view if his belief system is seen as antiquated and irrelevant?  He becomes a figure of disunity and chaos and when interpreted through our own secular democratic lens, he is condemned for starting another war over something as ridiculous as religion.

The loss of an understanding of religion leads to a loss of meaning of the purpose of their education.  Like Augustine said, the eyes may read the book, perform the experiment, write the paper, without an understanding as to why these tasks are important and how they relate to their life in general.

If the system is to truly educate what is human in humanity, a new approach must be taken.

Students are given no foundation as to who they are and what principles their society is based on and therefore do not have a frame of reference within which to compare other perspectives.  They also have little sense of who they are and fall prey to fads and fashions that dictate who they should be.  With the loss of a sense of their tradition and personal identity, an education in criticism becomes a practice in skepticism where students approach their education with a certain level of detachment.

Western society erroneously associates democratic sensibility with tolerance based on secularist assumptions without challenging dialogue and the education system models this by relegating religion to the sideline where any incursion into a public school is often met with hostility.  Teachers for the most part, do not fully understand religion or assume the same negative views of religion and in turn reinforce the cycle.  The system must be reformed and education of young people must be reevaluated so that it is directed towards educating an integrated.  A humanist[2] education is needed in which the student is seen as a whole person on a journey to discover their humanity in and greater meaning to existence itself.  The curriculum provided by the Humanities is essential for this to happen.

…to be continued with a look at “Why Humanities?” 


[1] By “religious” people often always refer to behaviour because the student has indicated they would not do something that most kids do (ie. drinking, sex etc.).

[2] The use of this term may seem confusing at first, however, if one refers to the definition of humanism in the Oxford English Dictionary, my use of the term encompasses this definition with the added notion that religion is essential in our striving to be fully human.

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