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December 1, 2016

Navigating Religious Differences

To become world citizens, students will need to go beyond the "game show contestant" approach to understand world religions.
Instructional Strategies
Navigating Religious Differences thumbnail
Credit: ©Stefanie Felix
When U.S. policymakers frame education in a global context, they often do so with an eye toward how students perform in core academic subjects. No doubt it's important for our students to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully participate in the emerging global economy, but another need is at least as pressing. With globalization comes a growing demand for understanding, negotiation, and compromise among people across a sometimes bewildering array of cultural values, practices, and interests.
Religion plays a powerful role in this cultural mix. Although recent surveys suggest that Americans are becoming less formally religious, the world as a whole is seeing a rise in religious affiliation, and nearly every region of the globe continues to endure conflict stemming, at least in part, from religious differences (Pew Research Center, 2014, 2015). The need for students to understand the role of religion in global society and in the lives of those who adhere to various faiths is more urgent than ever. Teachers face daunting challenges, however, in helping students gain what I call religious fluency.

Citizenship and Religious Literacy

We need a drastically more ambitious commitment to educating for global citizenship than has been typical of American education throughout its history. That education must include engagement with the complexities of religion. Democratic citizenship bequeaths us the right to deliberate about the shape of our society, but along with this right comes the responsibility to listen carefully to fellow citizens, to understand what matters to them and why. For many citizens, what's important to them includes—and is directly informed by—their religious values and commitments.
To be religiously illiterate, then, is to have failed in one's obligations as a democratic citizen. These obligations only increase when we broaden our vision of citizenship beyond domestic borders. Becoming a "citizen of the world" need not lessen a person's national identification or allegiance, but it should lead us to apply skills of dialogue and deliberation to the global context.
This is a far more demanding vision of citizenship than the "terms, labels, and lists" approach schools typically adopt. Civic education focused on factual recall (the kind of knowledge needed for the civics tests several states now require) treats the role of citizen more as game show contestant than as cultural interpreter and diplomat.
Propositional knowledge about religion is an important civic ingredient for the global-ready graduate. Basic religious literacy—knowing the outline of different faiths' history, doctrine, and practice—serves as a foundation for the more robust religious fluency that enables citizens to navigate real-world complexities. Such fluency allows us to appreciate not only the basic contours of religious belief and practice—what matters to adherents—but also why those things matter and how faith shapes people's lives, commitments, and allegiances.

Three Complexities

Educators should give particular consideration to three key complex realities about religion as they seek to prepare global-ready citizens.

Religions Are Internally Diverse

A surface-level understanding of religions often overlooks the inevitable diversity within traditions. But appreciating the significance of these internal differences can be pivotal in navigating the interests at stake when religiously informed values collide. Conflicts in the Middle East have long underscored tensions between Muslims and Jews, but they have also revealed for Westerners the divisions within both religions, perhaps nowhere as dramatically as the Shia-Sunni strife throughout the region.
Internal diversity abounds closer to home as well—witness ongoing disagreements about gay marriage among Protestant denominations. And just as some Christians advocate for lowering the wall between church and state whereas others view this separation as important, Muslim Americans hold a range of opinions on questions like whether Islamic institutions are better equipped than the federal government to improve societal conditions.

Religious Identity Is Multifaceted

The historical Protestant emphasis on doctrinal teaching often creates the misperception among Western students that religious identity is fundamentally about holding certain beliefs. But some religions focus very little on doctrine or belief, and participants within any given religion can range widely in terms of how and why they identify with that religion. It makes no sense to speak of a generic Muslim, Jew, or Hindu. An individual's ethnicity, language, nationality, gender, and social class all influence what it means for her to identify—and live her life—as a member of a religion.
How can we help students grasp these complexities? Exposing students to "insider" stories told by people of different faiths (often best presented through literature, journalism, or videos) helps students begin to see people from conflicting traditions as more than just their differences.
Of course, our choice of stories will depend on students' developmental levels. For young adult readers, some effective texts would include Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does My Head Look Big in This?, Chris Crutcher's Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, and I Believe in Water, edited by Marilyn Singer. Such texts enable students to look beyond stereotypes to nuances. It's useful to provide historical background on how internal differences emerged. And it's important to help students understand that diversity and disagreement within a faith is a typical feature of religion, and doesn't indicate some sort of weakness in any particular tradition.

Religions Change Over Time

Learning about religions as part of social studies timeline surveys (the typical approach for state standards frameworks) risks conveying the notion that religions are static historical markers with fixed contours and characteristics. But modern religions are constantly changing as their adherents interact with the broader culture around them; teachings are reinterpreted, and practices shift. Here is where religious insiders are often less helpful informants because the idea that one's tradition has changed may threaten a sense of eternal authority.

Cultivating the Right Orientation

The complexity suggested by these three ideas carries significant implications for cultivating religious fluency. Perhaps most fundamental is the recognition of just how complicated this task can be; we cannot expect students to achieve a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of global religions during their K–12 education. Teachers' most useful contribution may be to cultivate in students a certain orientation toward religious diversity and its intersection with the public square.
This orientation involves both particular attitudes—appreciation for the importance of religion in the lives of many of their fellow global citizens and awareness that their own perspective is limited—and respectful actions that help people navigate disagreement involving religious values and commitments. The contexts our students will have to navigate will undoubtedly change throughout their lives, but the attitude and skills necessary to engage productively across faiths will not.
Students need to become familiar with civic dialogue marked by respectful inquiry, critique, and deliberation. Practices to get them there will vary widely by learners' age and grade level, of course. Generally, I suggest that teachers start by drawing from current (local or global) disagreements connected to religious traditions. Whether it's a county-wide argument about whether to add new religious holidays to the school calendar or a global controversy about who gets to claim sacred spaces, students should be stretched to engage imaginatively beyond their own cultural and religious assumptions. Teachers might require students to write a compelling case for the "side" with which they are least familiar. This requires students to listen closely to the unfamiliar voices and stories, to recognize their own limited perspectives, and to know what kinds of questions to ask to gain a fuller appreciation.
Understanding religious diversity won't be enough for students to be good global citizens. They will need to make decisions tied to religious differences and navigate conflicts. So we need to emphasize learning to seek opportunities for compromise and accommodation. As you look at local and global conflicts, brainstorm with students ways that conflicting perspectives might be honored and accommodated, even when all participants don't get everything they want. I urge teachers not to approach such deliberation as a competition or debate. The ethos needs to be one of mutual exploration in search of what is just and fair, not tactical victory.

Caveats and Compromises

Three caveats about cultivating religious fluency in public schools deserve mention.
  1. Be careful which sources of exposure you use to familiarize students with religions. Because of the diversity within religions, the perspective of any single source will be at best incomplete—and likely at odds with some adherents of the same tradition. This doesn't mean we should only use "neutral" materials. (That approach is what gives textbooks their deserved reputation as bland and boring.) Rather, we should employ a variety of thoughtful sources that help represent the range of perspectives within any particular tradition. Invite guest speakers only after careful vetting and forthright conversations about the content of their presentations and necessary limits on personal advocacy. And students themselves should neither be asked to serve as sole representatives of their religion nor granted the platform to do so.Here a paradox emerges. We are often moved toward empathy with unfamiliar perspectives through the power of stories or art—whose evocation of experience helps us step inside an unfamiliar perspective—and personal connections. In their study of religion in contemporary America, Robert Putnam and David Campbell (2010) present the Aunt Susan Principle: We might not know much about our Aunt Susan's religion, but we know that we like and trust her, impelling us to seek greater accommodation despite our differences. But this particularity is also necessarily partial. Take care to acknowledge that partiality when using stories to generate insight and appreciation.
  2. Religious fluency means moving beyond celebrating diversity. In many social contexts, it's no small achievement when people respond appreciatively to unfamiliar values and practices. And for younger grade levels, the "heroes and holidays" approach may be a good starting place for exposure to religious diversity. Yet it's not sufficient for effective global citizenship, because it doesn't take seriously enough the often profound, sometimes irreconcilable disagreements we have about the best ways to live.Religions are not "all the same." They offer different visions of the good life and what that should mean, not only for citizens' private lives, but also for the policies that govern public life. Granted, it's always worth considering whether we can "live and let live," but plenty of values cannot coexist coherently—equal rights for all and social restrictions on women, for example.Civic preparation must include learning how to recognize and navigate such value conflicts, because the alternative is not simple forbearance. In a democracy, there will be winners and losers. Better for citizens to engage honestly and openly with our profound differences than to have policy formed by an uninformed and self-interested majority.
  3. Keep the focus on religion's intersection with public life. Many citizens find personal meaning and purpose in religion, but public schools should be wary of requiring students to explore religion for those existential purposes. When parents or community members perceive that public schools are encouraging student engagement in experiential or devotional religious practices, controversy results. So another caution regarding "sources of exposure" would be to think carefully about field trips to religious sites and student participation in religious rituals.
Even with a civic focus, the study of religion in K–12 schools entails compromises. We need to avoid the historical mistake of marginalizing or even avoiding exploration of unfamiliar religions yet beware of a survey approach that oversimplifies for the sake of broad topical coverage. We must balance the power of personal story with the recognition that religious experience and devotion take different shapes in different contexts. We need to cultivate an appreciation for the rich diversity of religious commitments and practices while eventually moving beyond an uncritical—and ultimately incoherent—endorsement of all values associated with any religion.
As with almost every curriculum involving ethics and values, schools need civic partners to reinforce the lessons. Politicians, members of the media, community leaders, and religious institutions themselves can model a commitment to civic engagement that avoids caricatures and demonstrates an appreciation for both the complexity of religious influence in the public square and the importance of navigating its diversity. Examples of this kind of engagement emerge occasionally on the national and international stages, but the local context—where communities cultivate a shared life together—is perhaps the most promising arena for students to explore. Students can attend—and perhaps participate in—community forums, city council hearings, and school board meetings at which neighbors bring their values, religious and otherwise, to bear on matters of mutual importance.
These processes are almost inevitably complex—but we avoid complexity at our civic peril. For both our leaders and our students, a simplistic understanding of religions is at least as dangerous as outright ignorance. We can afford neither as we seek to engage respectfully with our shrinking globe and the rich religious and ethical diversity it contains.

Pew Research Center. (2014). 2014 U.S. religious landscape study. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Pew Research Center. (2015). The future of world religions: Population growth projections, 2010–2050. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2010). American grace: How religion divides and unites us. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Robert Kunzman is associate professor in the school of education at Indiana University Bloomington. His most recent book is Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Beacon Press, 2009).

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