Everyone knows the saying… never talk about religion or politics. I can’t speak to political issues, but I’m fairly certain this is the entirely wrong approach when it comes to religion. In fact, I think we should share the world’s religions with kids… in an age-appropriate way, of course… from a fairly young age.
It turns out, I’m not alone. Government entities, civil rights groups, and many religious educators seem to agree that all children, regardless of their faith background, are entitled to equity and respect. So how can we achieve that? Educating adults is clearly important. If we want to get ahead of the issue, we need to start during the preschool and early elementary years. Here’s why we need to teach our kids about the world’s religions.
Two Approaches To Religious Instruction
Before diving into my top five reasons, I need to clarify an important distinction. Educators often talk about two general approaches to religious instruction: devotional and non-devotional.
In devotional learning, kids are taught about a particular religion. The hope is that they will eventually choose to follow that religion – that they will become “devotees,” so to speak. This is generally what happens in religious settings, like churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques.
In non-devotional – sometimes called “academic” – religious education, the hope is that kids will better understand cultural diversity, global history, and differing worldviews. Interestingly, the content is similar in both approaches, with kids learning about worship spaces, sacred texts, holy days, typical practices, and customary beliefs. What’s different is the intent.
In this post, I am referring to non-devotional education. I’m happy to leave devotional religion to faith-based educators. However, there’s still plenty for kids (and adults) to explore. Finally, here they are!
My top five reasons for teaching the world’s religions to kids
1. Celebrating Multiculturalism
Religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. How people dress, what people eat, when people have days off, and how families spend their weekends are often determined both by religious beliefs/practices and by culture. If we want to celebrate diversity in all its forms, if we want everyone to have a seat at the table, and if we want our kids to appreciate how others choose to live, then religion simply must be part of the discussion.
When looking at the religious landscape in America, it’s all too easy to notice that Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs each make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. Such tiny slices of the overall pie. But, worldwide, there are over 1 billion Hindus and almost 2 billion Muslims. And, there are almost as many Jews in America as there are in Israel (about 7 million in each place). Despite the trend of increased secularism in the U.S. and Western Europe, almost 6 billion people (over 75% of the world’s population) still affiliate with a religion.
Each of these religious traditions is full of color, vibrancy, compassion, and wisdom. Their unique calendars are punctuated by times of joy and times of reflection. They celebrate births, deaths, miraculous events, the difficulties inherent in the human condition, and the mysteries of life. Let’s not forget about all the recipes! Yes, we need to prepare our future leaders for the global conflicts that will inevitably arise. Nonetheless, we need to teach them about the billions of beautiful threads that make up the tapestry that is our world.
2. Combatting Hatred
Every day in America, children and teens are subject to hateful discrimination simply because of their religion. A 2015 survey of over 300 Hindu-American tweens/teens showed that one-third had been bullied for their religious beliefs. Over half of Sikh children experience school bullying, and the numbers are higher for children who wear turbans. In California, over half the Muslim students reported being mocked, verbally insulted, or abused for being Muslim. Over one-third of hijab-wearing girls report having their hijab offensively touched or pulled. In addition, verbal harassment for all these groups tends to increase following terrorist incidents. And that happens whether or not their particular religious group is involved. Finally, the majority of religiously-motivated harassment, vandalism, and violence in America is against Jews.
In 2016, the U.S. Justice Department held a series of roundtable discussions to explore methods for achieving true religious freedom in America. According to their final report:
“There was widespread agreement among Roundtable Participants that effectively combating religious discrimination in educational settings will require all students to develop a deeper understanding about, and respect for, different religions and religious practices.”
Several organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), have anti-discrimination resources for kids of all ages. Films can also be useful tools. Journeys in Film offers several suggestions, including these resources for combatting Islamophobia.
3. Exploring Windows and Mirrors
The windows-and-mirrors metaphor, often used by educators interested in multicultural literacy, is valuable in this context, as well. Many people view books as windows into world’s unknown. They have the power to whisk us away to places and times we can barely imagine – deep into the past, far into the future, to the sky, to the sea, to the other side of the globe, and to distant universes. But kids also need windows to explore the reality of the here and now. They need to realize that a single life, no matter how rich, is only one version of how to be human, and they need to recognize that we are all connected despite our differences.
However, books can serve as mirrors, as well as windows. In this case, books reflect essential aspects of the human experience back to us – allowing us to ponder our similarities and differences. Children who are part of a dominant culture get to learn that “dominant” doesn’t mean “only”. And children who are part of minority groups get to see themselves represented in meaningful ways. Importantly, everyone discovers a wider lens for viewing our pluralistic society.
Of course, we don’t need to rely solely on books. Personal experiences can also serve as both windows and mirrors. Kids can simply look around in their community as they pass different houses of worship. They can notice when fellow classmates are out of school because of a religious holy day. Or, they can learn to identify different types of clothing worn by members of different faith communities. Windows and mirrors. In real life.
4. It’s Easier Than You Might Think
A big barrier to teaching kids about religion is the fear and insecurity of adults. We’re afraid we don’t know enough about the different faith traditions. We worry that we’ll stumble over unfamiliar words. We’re concerned that we might say something wrong or, worse yet, offensive.
Luckily, there are plenty of resources that you can use to teach kids about the world’s religions. They are the same types of resources you use to educate your kids about other topics – published books, craft websites, informational blogs, FAQ pages, YouTube videos, etc. Before you know it, you’ll feel completely overwhelmed by all the possibilities!
One legitimate concern is that books and videos will be devotional/faith-based instead of non-devotional/academic. An easy workaround is to preview resources, quickly, before you share them with your kids – which you would probably do anyway. You know your kids and family best, so you’ll be able to discern whether or not it feels appropriate for you. Another approach is to stick with educational websites that offer vetted resources. Below are links to get you started, on exploring the world’s religions with kids.
Recommended Kids’ Books for Religious Holy days
Teaching Religious Literacy with Films
5. It’s Fun!
Last, but certainly not least, learning about the world’s religions can be really fun! Of course, people take their religious beliefs and practices seriously in the same way that people take their cultural heritage seriously. But, we don’t avoid travel because of that! Instead, we teach our kids how to learn about the food, dress, and customs of another culture by being open-hearted, non-judgmental, and respectful. The same is true for religion.
However, in the case of religion, we are not asking our kids to learn about people living in another country. Instead, we are helping them learn about neighbors, classmates, teammates, and friends – people who live in our towns and cities, people who seek honesty and fairness, and people who desire peace and harmony. People who are, in many profound and important ways, just like us.
Teaching About Religion in the Social Studies Classroom, Edited by Charles C. Haynes (National Council for the Social Studies, Bulletin 117, 2019)
Combatting Religious Discrimination Today: Final Report (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2016).
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