Religious Pluralism in School Curriculum: A Dangerous Idea or a Necessity?

Sardar M Anwaruddin & Rubén A Gaztambide-Fernández. Curriculum Inquiry. Volume 45, Issue 2. 2015.

Few topics raise into relief the tensions and contradictions that haunt liberal democracies more than religious pluralism. For instance, the ironies of how core liberal values, like freedom of expression, run into conflict with commitments to religious pluralism were evident in the aftermath of the recent attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices. The killings of 12 staff members at the Parisian satirical publication drew widespread condemnation by defenders of free speech, while also fueling Islamophobia and another wave of repression on Muslim communities across Europe. Yet, thinking seriously about religion is important not only because of the gruesome violence being perpetrated in the name of—or against—religion, but also because a sizeable portion of the public has active religious practices and strong religious identifications. In recent years, this has become evident in the growing support for religion within public schools. In the United States, for example, schools in places like Ohio are eligible to receive public funds for a mentoring program on the condition that they connect with a faith-based organization (Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 2014). In Turkey, the education council has recently proposed that religious education, which is already compulsory from age nine, be extended to include children as young as six (Anger at plans to boost religious teaching, 2014).

Such moves toward including more religious teaching in public education, of course, have many critics. While some critics are somewhat sympathetic to some form of religious education, they raise concerns about the process by which some religions become the focus of attention over others and about how resources are distributed to support different kinds of religious education. For others, the entire idea of religious education within public schools undermines the kind of secularism required for liberal democracy and the espoused separation between church and state; and the problem of choosing which religions to teach or not to teach is itself a considerable threat. The greatest danger, they suspect, is that “without some basic agreement religiously, the entrance of religion into the public arena would seem to be a formula for open-ended conflict and possible anarchy” (Neuhaus, 2010, p. 79). Yet, as Neuhaus goes on to argue, a “democratically legitimate” public ethic cannot be established without engaging religion (p. 80), because religion is a primary source of values for many members of any society. As such, it follows that any defensible notion of public education in democratic societies must address how students’ religious beliefs and backgrounds should be incorporated into the curriculum, without fearing that doing so “might be interpreted as legitimating religious belief” (Dillon, 2003, p. 7). Dillon (2003) identifies three key reasons for paying attention to religion. First, the study of religion helps us understand the everyday experiences of other with whom we share socially. Second, it can be an important predictor of a variety of social processes. Third, despite negative aspects, such as the link between religion and violence, it has the potential to play significant roles in the processes of social change. At the very least, then, religious education should be “concerned with what religion does and how it affects the society of which it is part” (Davie, 2007, p. 19).

One way of looking at what religion does in society is to view religion as an orienting device (Ahmed, 2004). Regardless of our personal beliefs, religion orients us in specific ways and toward specific directions. We tend to form bonds with those who share similar beliefs with regard to religion, while often staying away from those who have views radically different from ours. Thus, religion creates relations of what Ahmed calls “towardness,” as well as, presumably, “awayness.” Viewing religion as an orienting device raises the question of whether or not we can ignore religion while we aim for a pluralistic society. Indeed, it suggests that delegating religion to the “private” sphere is incongruent with the ideal of political pluralism as part of healthy democracies. For Beckford (2003), the intersection between religious and political pluralism can be understood in terms of: the extent of religious diversity within a given society; the extent to which various religious groups enjoy recognition in the public sphere; and the extent of support for the moral and political significance of the public acceptance of religions. Although all three of these are interrelated, the normative dimensions implied in the third are particularly important if we are to understand political pluralism as a prerequisite for democracy. From this perspective, says Beckford, “religious ‘pluralism’ is best considered as a term denoting a normative or ideological view holding that the diversity of religious outlooks and collectivities is, within limits, beneficial and that peaceful coexistence between religious collectivities is desirable” (p. 81). But of course, achieving and maintaining religious and/or political pluralism is complex and often politically contentious, and this is no less so within educational institutions.

When it comes to public schooling, fostering a pluralistic culture conducive to enhancing the educational experiences of all students brings its own set of challenges and opportunities. It is true that over the last several decades schools have sought to improve the educational experiences of students who come from diverse cultural backgrounds and with differing abilities. Indeed, despite persistent issues, many school systems serving diverse student populations are making concerted efforts to address the needs of students by taking account of their diverse needs and backgrounds. However, as Julie Minikel-Lacocque (in this issue) argues, schools have yet to figure out how best to support, integrate and engage the diversity of religious beliefs and values students bring with them.

The four articles in this issue of Curriculum Inquiry (CI), in different ways and from different points of view, address this question of how to negotiate pluralism within schools. The first two articles address the issue of religion and public education specifically, while the last two present important pedagogical implications for dealing with religion in the classroom. And although one article (Myers, McBride, & Anderson) does not address the topic of religion directly, it nevertheless provides important implications about how dialogs and discourses may be helpful to foster pluralistic views about contentious topics such as religion. Collectively, the authors of all four articles point to the importance of having dialogs about the relationships between religion and public education in pluralistic societies. They suggest that as educational researchers, policy-makers, curriculum designers or classroom teachers, we cannot afford to bypass the topic of religion and public education.

One way of dealing with this challenge head on is to include the study of religion in the curriculum of public schools. This is the key argument introduced by Margaretta Patrick in her article, “A Call for More Religious Education in the Secondary Social Studies Curriculum of Western Canadian Provinces.” Patrick argues that religious education becomes increasingly necessary as people with many different religious practices enter into contact in the public sphere. Her argument points to the necessity of addressing religion to establish a public ethic that would be, in Neuhaus’s (2010) words, “democratically legitimate.” Since religious diversity in the public sphere is an empirical fact, public schools cannot ignore it. Patrick examines the extent to which four western Canadian provinces address multiple religions in their social studies curriculum. Her analysis shows that while religion is present in the curriculum, religious diversity is largely missing from the content expectations leading to a lack of sustained engagement. As such, the author makes a strong argument for the importance of more religious education in the secondary school social studies curriculum.

Patrick’s call is of particular importance in a time when delegating religion further into the private realm seems to be a hallmark of many liberal democracies. Her argument challenges a simplistic demarcation between the private and the public, echoing Hann’s (2000) concern with the inability of “secular” democracies to protect religious minorities from prosecution. As Hann (2000) writes:

I know of no country with entirely generalist legislation and practices in the religious domain, i.e., where all groups formed on the basis of common beliefs are treated alike by the secular authorities, irrespective of their size and their historical significance. (p. 14)

Likewise, Patrick argues that the absolute delegation of religion to the private realm results in a secularist bias that contributes to the marginalization of students with strong religious identification, especially those who come from religious minority groups.

This experience of marginalization due to religious beliefs and identification is taken up by Minikel-Lacocque in the second article of this issue, entitled “‘You See the Whole Tree, Not Just the Stump:’ Religious Fundamentalism, Capital, and Public Schooling.” Minikel-Lacocque tells stories of a fundamentalist Christian student whom she names Jasmine, and of Jasmine’s struggles at a liberal arts college. Jasmine led her life according to a particular reading of the Bible, loved her church and considered her church community as her extended family. Indeed, Jasmine’s religious convictions and her church community played important roles in the formation of her identity and worldview. During the transitional months into her college experience, Jasmine faced a number of issues that clashed with her faith. The clash between her college and her faith also affected her academic achievement. For a first-year English course, for instance, Jasmine wrote a paper about why she identified as a Christian, arguing that Christianity simply made sense to her. But her instructor pushed back, asking her to use logic rather than faith to debate her position so that it is not easily dismissed. Yet, the only “evidence” she could muster to sound logical was the supposed discovery of Noah’s Ark, and despite all her efforts, she ultimately failed to satisfy her instructor’s expectations. Due to incidents of this sort, Jasmine did not find her college as a place that valued or honored her connection with her faith and her church community. In the end, she decided to leave the college and returned to what was safe, familiar and comfortable for her.

Both Patrick and Minikel-Lacocque highlight the importance of addressing religion directly if we are to support and enhance a truly multicultural education. Their works suggest that when the curriculum assumes religion as a private matter, it fails to recognize that many students carry their faith with them into the classroom and that it shapes the ways in which they learn and engage knowledge, in effect masking the marginalization of religious minority groups. From these perspectives, both Patrick and Minikel-Lacocque provide important implications for what some have called the “deprivatization” of religion in liberal democracies (Hann, 2000). Hann (2000) notes that the secularist privatization of religion is about both delegating religious life to the private realm as well as the process of corporatizing religious organization. Dissatisfied with the consequences of this privatization, most versions of the deprivatization movement challenge “the secular liberal consensus on the location of the public/private boundary” and endeavor to show how “modernity can create the conditions in which religious values are able to address public issues and structural forces and thereby to influence individual consciousness” (Beckford, 2003, p. 61). The implications of this move to deprivatize religion in education are as yet largely under-examined.

One important aspect of the deprivatization of religion for curriculum and pedagogy is the need for students to learn to engage in dialog about religion with those who have different relationships to different kinds of religious beliefs, including no religion at all. This is crucial, as a recent European study suggests, “irrespective of their religious positions a majority of students are interested in learning about religions in school” (REDCo Policy Recommendations, 2009, p. 2). Through dialogs, students can learn to recognize their prejudices about their interlocutors and thus come to understand those who are different from themselves. Rather than perpetuating divisions among students from various religious groups, schools are now challenged to teach students how to have dialogs with those with whom they disagree, creating spaces for what Bakhtin (1981, 1984) described as a polyphony of multiple valid voices and inviting students to occupy “simultaneous but different space” (Holquist, 2002, p. 21).

The third article in this issue, titled “Beyond Knowledge and Skills: Discursive Construction of Civic Identity in the World History Classroom,” sheds light on dialogs and discussions in the classroom. While this article does not focus directly on engaging religion in diverse classrooms, it provides implications for dialogic pedagogies to address contentious issues such as civic identity, citizenship and religion, among others. In this article, John Myers, Chantee McBride and Michelle Anderson describe how high school students negotiated and constructed civic identities through dialogs with peers. Along with the participating teachers, The authors planned classroom discussions that were based on three principles: identity talk, moral controversies and engaging difference. The discussions were aimed at generating students’ “identity talk,” involving complex moral reasoning based on topics that would encourage substantive disagreements. In order to support such identity talk, the teachers and the researchers created an open classroom climate where diverse viewpoints were encouraged, and students felt safe to express personal opinions. In this way, the authors argue that they co-construct beliefs, values and identities through dialogs with others. By exposing students to various meanings of citizenship and encouraging them to examine and challenge their particular views, the authors argue that dialog created the conditions for assuming contingent identity positions specific to the classroom context.

The work of Myers, McBride, and Anderson shows how dialogic pedagogies may help students to hold their own while respecting others’ beliefs, however different they may be. Through such openness to others, students can continually interrogate their own beliefs and negotiate, adapt or re-adjust their moral and political responsiveness to others. Dialogs in classrooms provide excellent training ground for students to learn cross-cultural sensitivity because public schools “are often more ethnically diverse than other sites, and young people from different groups are brought together into close contact not found elsewhere” (Jones, 2004, p. 58). Dialogic pedagogies are therefore desirable because they correspond to the political pluralism in the larger society, providing an opportunity to underscore the central connection between political and religious pluralism with which we began this editorial.

The concept of political pluralism occupies a central position in contemporary social and political studies. Although there are many theories about this concept, most of them maintain that political pluralism “recognizes a variety of groups and a variety of ways in which one can belong to a group” (Eisenberg, 1995, p. 25). Furthermore, pluralism is viewed “as an alternative, on one hand, to excessive and implausible individualism and, on the other hand, to overly simplistic holistic notions of community” (p. 25). There are, however, competing conceptions of pluralism, and while the term has gained currency in contemporary social and political discourses, it is also mobilized in a range of contradicting ways. Bellah (2006) identifies two versions of pluralism, both of these, he argues, are inadequate in the search for the common good. The first version, which Bellah calls “shallow pluralism,” is almost identical to individualism, holding that all social units are pluralistic, reducing society to the “plural” individuals who constitute it and prioritizing individual interests over the common good. Bellah calls the second version “communalist pluralism” as it highlight the particular vision of the common good of a given community. “If individualistic pluralism sees society as a limited contract entered into by individuals to maximize their self-interest,” Bellah argues, “communalist pluralism sees society as resting on uneasy treaty relations between communities so autonomous as virtually to be subnations” (p. 305).

Objecting to both versions of pluralism, Bellah (2006) develops a more defensible idea of pluralism based on the notion of plural communities in contrast to what he calls “lifestyle enclaves.” Plural communities are not easily reduced to their constituent individuals and have flexible boundaries. For Bellah (2006),

Such an idea of community is possible because all of us belong to more than one community and there is no community to which we belong exclusively without having some of our roles outside of it. This means that we are constantly shifting between being insiders and outsiders with respect to all the significant communities to which we belong. In principle that allows for openness and flexibility. (p. 307)

This “defensible pluralism” based upon multiple and flexible community memberships may become possible in, and necessary for, complex and multicultural societies that actively encourage religious pluralism, not as private matter, but as a public good.

In their article, Myers, McBride and Anderson show that classroom pedagogies based on dialog and discussion may be helpful to foster the kind of openness and flexibility that Bellah’s (2006) defensible pluralism would require. For example, students who participated in the study said that their conceptions of citizenship and civic responsibility had been shaped by their exposure to fellow students’ beliefs and opinions. However, we would like to note that when it comes to religious education in the classroom (as Patrick and Minikel-Lacocque suggest), creating an open and non-threatening space may be difficult for both teachers and students. Strong controversies may arise if there are students who hold unshakeable religious beliefs, or perhaps beliefs about religion, that hinder dialogs. Bohm (1996), for example, notes the significant challenge of encouraging productive dialog, particularly among people who identify with religious groups that have experienced significant conflict or that have split from each other. The difficulty of bringing together people with radically different religious beliefs and histories of conflict is exacerbated within public schools, where the prerogative of inclusion demands equity of access and opportunity.

The fourth and final article of this issue, titled “The Stories of Our National Past: History & Heritage in a Jewish High School,” provides some implications for overcoming the difficulties in creating dialogic space in the classroom. In this article, Sivan Zakai presents findings from a study that explored the relationship between the teaching of history and the teaching of heritage. The study was conducted at a Jewish high school in the United States that aimed to teach history (the academic study of the past) through a US history course, while teaching heritage (the study of stories that tie people to a collective past) through an Israeli history course. Analyzing data collected from multiple sources, Zakai shows that history and heritage are often murky; they are neither clearly delineated nor mutually exclusive in high school history education. Moreover, the students and the teachers who participated in this study demonstrated that a search for historical truth can be supported by a critical analysis of even the most cherished myths about religious tradition.

Zakai offers history educators a challenge as well as a promise. She describes the promise through the concept of “epistemic switching,” to denote “the ability to encounter history in different ways in different moments—at times with the critical eye of a historian, and at times with heart of a religious believer” (p. 238). This notion of epistemic switching holds important implications for dialogic pedagogies (as discussed by Myers, McBride and Anderson) aimed at addressing religious pluralism in educational settings (as discussed by Patrick and by Minikel-Lacocque). By showing how teachers and students approached “the past with multiple mindsets,” Zakai argues that epistemic switching can be an indispensable academic tool as it allows us to inhabit multiple positions and identities. Epistemic switching may also be helpful for encouraging what Bellah (2006) describes as a defensible conception of pluralism, as it encourages students to openly consider the ways in which they move in and out of particular communities and inhabit different positionalities. This kind of switching and shifting between epistemic positions and between sociocultural groups is necessary for addressing religious pluralism in the curriculum of public education.

All four articles in this issue of CI shed a different kind of light on both the challenges as well as the opportunities that religious pluralism brings into public education. Their work underscores the importance of religious pluralism for school curriculum. While the authors do not provide any easy answers, their work helps us to think seriously about the role of public education in addressing the tensions and contradictions that religious pluralism raises for liberal democracies. A blanket defense of liberal values like freedom of expression, for instance, makes little sense—and, in fact, might encourage further violence—when confronted with the need to build bridges between religious communities that have experienced historical conflict. Even the notion of dialog based on rational engagement falls apart when confronted with the tensions between history and tradition, as illustrated by Zakai. But perhaps the ultimate challenge lies in how democracy and multiculturalism will face the challenge of integrating and providing equal opportunities for those with religious beliefs that contradict liberal values. This is not simply a matter of accommodating learning differences or of culturally responsive pedagogies; it is about how we are oriented toward each other, how we come to see the world and how we engage each other actively in the process of becoming.