Religion is an important force that influences the world, frequently making headlines and impacting history. However, it is arguably one of the most sensitive subjects taught in school, often tinted with bias and misrepresentation of minority religions. In today’s world, high school students are exposed to more diversity than ever before, making it vital that their education provides them with a representative idea of international religions.
According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 70% of Americans are Christian, based on data from the year 2014. However, considering the other 30% — there is a reasonable case that students should learn about other religions. Even outside of the U.S., knowledge of other religions is important; students should know the difference between Hinduism, the religion of the world’s largest democracy, and Buddhism, practiced in so many countries of Asia. They should also know about the tenets of Islam so they will be able to form rational opinions independent of Middle Eastern conflicts they see in the news.
However, the core of this struggle is not lack of representation, as many of these religions are discussed in history and geography classes; it is misrepresentation. For example, while even the simplest research in Hindu scriptures yields the fact that Hindus do not believe in multiple gods, but rather a single all-pervading God, Hinduism is chronically classified as “polytheistic” in textbooks.
Furthermore, while major religions are not publicly associated with historic blights, such as the Holocaust, minority religions such as Hindus are repeatedly held accountable for the caste system (a historic social creation which is not actually endorsed by the Hindu religion), while Muslims worldwide are discriminated against because of the actions of a radical few.
Part of this problem is the socio-political climate toward minority religions, which ultimately affects a student’s perception of what is taught at school. Muslims are constantly misrepresented on the news, creating a public feeling of Islamophobia that could be counteracted and eradicated with better education about Islam. As comments made by some politicians over the past years suggest, there is a long way to go before such hate is eradicated, starting in high school.
On the other hand, some religions are portrayed as so mystical and trendy that teenagers are constantly appropriating cultures. Many teens will talk about their “karma”, wear Buddha jewelry or henna, and use the “om” emoji because it looks interesting and exotic. If students were taught better, they would recognize karma as an important tenet of the Hindu religion, and perhaps they would not wield it and other symbols so flippantly and with utter disregard for the religion behind it.
While so many religions are not considered to be important enough to receive accurate representation in the education system, another group is ignored unduly: those without any religion. The same Pew study revealed that 22% of Americans are unaffiliated with any religion in 2014. If schools are going to teach religion, the lack thereof should be addressed as well.
The bottom line is that if schools intend on producing students who are thoughtful, well-rounded members of the community, they should know something about other people in the world. This is impossible without being taught accurately and fairly about other religions, which starts with a simple desire to learn.
Image credits: Michael Heuss