Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Studying Religion, Learning Tolerance

Here is an unusually interesting story from the Catholic News Service, at least I think so. This California school superintendent was concerned about some anti-gay stuff going on in his schools, and thought maybe they should have a class to teach about sexual orientation. But, you know how some people are, that didn't fly.

So they started a religion class instead.
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- At a time when public schools are increasingly wary of any mention of religion, one California school district has found that requiring students to study world religions has been surprisingly uncontroversial and has helped smooth hostilities.

For the last six years, the Modesto public schools have required ninth graders to take a nine-week course on world religions, beginning with two weeks of study of First Amendment rights and the U.S. history of religious liberty.

When the requirement began, researchers from Stanford University in California and the College of William and Mary in Virginia started tracking students' attitudes and their understanding of different religions and of constitutional rights governing the free exercise of religion. Public schools add religion course to curriculum requirements

OK, they learned about religions. But the effect of the class seems to extend beyond simple knowledge of how other religions believe. These professors just published their results:
Among the study's findings were that students grew to understand and respect others' religious views and they were much more likely to accept that different religions share core moral values, reported Emile Lester, an assistant professor of government at the College of William and Mary, and Patrick S. Roberts, a fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

Students' scores on tests of basic knowledge on religion nearly doubled. And their tolerance increased for members of what the researchers termed "least-liked" groups in society and for the rights of people to express religious views and to display faith symbols.

At the same time, students who went into the course thinking that one religion was "definitely right and others wrong" didn't waver in their beliefs, explained Roberts.

So ... good news for the fundamentalists. The class didn't tear anybody's blinders off. But check this out:
"Religious conservatives worried that the course might promote relativism," he said. "But the percentage of students who believed one religion was right and others weren't did not vary after the course." Anecdotes from interviews with students supported that data, he said.

The decision to require all ninth-graders to study world religions came about when Modesto Superintendent Jim Enochs tried to address the problem of homosexual students being harassed. One approach he suggested was to include "sexual orientation" in existing district policies on tolerance and respect.

Enochs' proposal sounded to some in the community like the district was endorsing homosexuality. That led to months of debate and eventually a broader plan.

Modesto is out in the middle of California in a region known generically as "The Valley." It's surrounded by agriculture, and was one of those places the Okies settled in during the Dust Bowl.
"Modesto and its surrounding townships in California's Stanislaus County were routinely described to us by conservative and liberal members of the Modesto community as belonging to the 'California Bible Belt,'" the report said. It notes that of the seven school board members three "ran on platforms sympathetic to conservative Christian concerns about public schools."

I always thought of religion as something that taught tolerance and caring, and gave you the strength to accept things you couldn't understand. Lately, I'm sorry, but I don't see much of that any more. This story sort of gives you hope, though.
Mincberg contrasted the Modesto course to recent high-profile conflicts about religion, such as the Dover, Pa., school district's furor over telling students in science classes that intelligent design is an alternative to evolution.

He said the Modesto program manages to avoid what he called such "straw man" debates by teaching about religions, not incorporating religious beliefs into curriculum. He and others on the panel cautioned that the course errs a bit on the side of presenting a "warm and fuzzy" picture of all the religions.

Charles Haynes, senior scholar of the First Amendment Center, who consulted with the district as it developed the curriculum, noted that devoting too much attention to religions' negative aspects might jeopardize the community support the program has enjoyed so far.

Lester told Catholic News Service after the program that, while the nine-week course allowed for only core information about a handful of major religions, even the basics helped clear up misconceptions.

"Several Modesto teachers told me that a significant number of Protestant students did not understand that Catholicism was a form of Christianity, and that even several Catholic students held this belief," he said. "These teachers said the course provides a greater understanding of the common ground shared by different forms of Christianity."

I think this is cool.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Of course, putting all religions on an equal footing in an historical analysis will be anathema to Christian conservatives who are always defensive about their faith."

Most Christian "conservatives" would be delighted to discuss anytime and anywhere the difference between their religion and others.

May 17, 2006 6:36 AM  
Blogger JimK said...

Sure. As Stephen Colbert said at the White House correspondents' dinner, "And though I am a committed Christian, I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior."


May 17, 2006 7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Jim, Christians believe Christianity is correct. If they didn't, they wouldn't be Christians. But, as I said, they would be happy to discuss the differences- anytime, anywhere- and have often been denied that opportunity in public schools.

If "tolerance" means agreeing that all religions are essentially equal (and I don't think that's what "tolerance" means), Christianity is not "tolerant" at all. Few religions are. I think maybe the Bahai religion believes something like that.

Some may misunderstand and believe Christianity is "tolerant" in the sense you use the term because scripture calls for compassion, mercy and to be at peace with non-believers "as far as possible". But this doesn't negate the teaching of Jesus that he is the only way to know God and that whoever is not for him is against him.

Dr D is doing the same thing you were objecting to when CRC did it last week- that is, analyzing someone else's viewpoint. But I won't call that lying (like you did) but simply say I think the analysis is incorrect.

May 17, 2006 7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"then in this poisoned atmosphere those may very easily become fighting words."

Nobody doubts ancient texts when, say, Socrates or Cicero is quoted so there's no reason to doubt the Bible when it quotes Jesus.

Accepting these quotes doesn't lead to "fighting words". Jesus also said his Kingdom was not of this world and when his disciples try to forcefully resist his arrest, he told them that those who live by the sword will die by the sword, even healing a soldier that Peter had injured.

By the way, in the Torah, God says you shall not worship other Gods.

May 18, 2006 10:23 AM  
Blogger Christine said...

Anon said, Nobody doubts ancient texts when, say, Socrates or Cicero is quoted so there's no reason to doubt the Bible when it quotes Jesus.

Why limit yourself to quotes of Jesus in the Bible? The Gospel of Judas is a recently published ancient text containing quotes by Jesus. Other ancient texts such as those found found at Nag Hamadi and the Dead Sea quote Jesus as well.

These ancient texts and others like them might provide valuable information about lessons Jesus taught that early organizers of the church choose to ignore when selecting books for inclusion in the New Testament.


May 18, 2006 4:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Not alot of time today but I did want to make a couple of responses to your comments. I was surprised by them because from some of your past comments, I thought you might be a Christian believer.

"Christ didn't write the gospels himself, and we're not sure the evangelists were eye-witnesses of speech and acts. Regardless, the gosepels were written decades later, and memories fade and alter over time."

The gospels were written by eye-witnesses. This was a requirement for their inclusion in the New Testament canon by the Council of Nicea. I would have thought you knew that.

"Anyway, when someone chooses to quote "he who is not with me is against me" in a public forum, are those not fighting words?"

I chose to quote that verse because it was appropriate to Jim's comment about how he always thought religion should be tolerant. Christianity is in the technical sense but not in altered definition that humanism is trying to establish. As for "fighting words", if that's a metaphor for disagreement I guess the verse could be construed as such. Christianity, however, is opposed to spreading the gospel by any other means than suasion, believing each individual is directly responsible to God.

May 19, 2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why limit yourself to quotes of Jesus in the Bible? The Gospel of Judas is a recently published ancient text containing quotes by Jesus. Other ancient texts such as those found found at Nag Hamadi and the Dead Sea quote Jesus as well.

These ancient texts and others like them might provide valuable information about lessons Jesus taught that early organizers of the church choose to ignore when selecting books for inclusion in the New Testament."

There are some other historical references and quotes from Jesus other than the Bible. Some may be accurate and deserve consideration. Don't think I implied otherwise.

May 19, 2006 9:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And the bottom line is that there are four canonical gospels as well as many others, including the ones mentioned by Christine, written decades after the fact.

Is anyone surprised that Yahweh would have said "You shall have no other gods besides me"? Actually, I always thought it curious that he would have had the need to say that at all, but I subsequently learned that my ancestors often were polytheistic until late into the First Temple era, so it doesn't surprise me. And not only polytheistic, but their beliefs and worshop practices were well accepted as part of the culture."

The OT documents this fall into idol worship many times. Obviously, Judaism is not based on the righteousness of a people, including the Messianic branch. The point is the Judeo-Christian religion doesn't believe that all religions are equivalent thus they aren't "tolerant" in this new humanist definition advocated by TTF.

May 19, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Judeo-Christian religion? Which one is that? I love public/listserve discussions on religion-especially when some people claim to know actual historical facts but reveal they are talking about faith/beliefs-not history. I have heard excellent religious historical scholars speak - those that can separate historical fact from faith. I have also heard great speakers from a number of religions about their beliefs- some of which I have difficulty understanding- because they involve an act of faith I do not accept -like the Trinity and Transubstantiation(spelling?). I know people have a really hard time understanding why I keep kosher and more- keep Passover(dishes, dishes, more dishes and complete emptying of fridge, freezer and a large pantry-and boiling my sink.) However, I don't try to say this is what God wants you to do-I don't think it is God that wants me to do this.

May 19, 2006 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Yes, back again to the non-existent "Judeo-Christian religion" of Wyatt. And, btw, it's the Torah, or Tanach, not the OT, and the NT is actually the BT, or Belated Testament. There is nothing new about it these days."

OK, Dr, I'll humor you. We'll say for the sake of argument that the different branches of Judeo-Christianism each represent a different religion. Still of Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Roman Catholism, Reformed Protestantism, Eastern Orthdoxy, the major branches of Judeo-Christianism, none believe that all religions are equivalent and thus they aren't "tolerant" in this new humanist definition advocated by TTF.

By the by, I happen to be an anonymous commenter.

May 20, 2006 11:19 AM  

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