How to talk about religion… at school.

Teaching about the world religions made the news in Canada a few months ago as the Supreme Court upheld the Quebec public school system’s requirements for its students to take an ethics and world religion course.  I like the concept and idea and believe that we should continue to develop a curriculum that encourages public discourse in our schools of religious ideals and ethics.  The pluralistic nature of our urban communities and universities guarantees a growing need to equip students with skills for understanding another person’s worldview–even if its a religiously informed view.

My friend Mark Chancey posted Robert Kunzman’s article, “How to Talk About Religion.”  He calls for “civic multilingualism” to be nurtured within public schools:

In recent years, the call has increased for U.S. students to study foreign languages. In an interconnected, global society, the argument goes, Americans must be able to communicate effectively with a diversity of peoples and cultures, whether for purposes of commerce, research, or national security. But given the prevalence of religion talk in today’s world, another form of fluency is increasingly needed: Civic multilingualism is the ability to converse across different religious and ethical perspectives in search of understanding, compromise, and common ground. At home and abroad, this may represent the greatest social challenge of the 21st century.

To meet this challenge, public schools cannot sidestep the influence of religion in society. Nor should they cultivate a model of citizenship that avoids religion talk altogether.

My experience in Vancouver is that we have difficulty with this vision of civic responsibility in part because of our virtue of “tolerance” based on ignorance.  Kunzman believes that  “tolerance” without “knowledge” actually creates citizens who lack “respect.”  He writes,

Public schools often see their role as promoting tolerance of diversity, and this is certainly important. But tolerance can be entirely ignorant—students don’t have to know anything about other beliefs or ways of life to tolerate them. Respect, however, requires an appreciation for why religious adherents believe or live the way they do. Students who have this understanding of their fellow citizens’ religious commitments will be better equipped to thoughtfully discuss those commitments, especially when conflicts arise in the public square.


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