The Modesto Model for Teaching about Religion

September 2, 2006

Source: The New York Times

On September 2, 2006 The New York Times reported, "Back to school. Back to reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. Religion? If learning about evolution is essential for understanding contemporary science, if learning about sex is essential for adolescent health, is learning about religion any less essential for understanding a world of powerful and often literally explosive religious allegiances? After a quarter-century of complaints about the eclipse of religion in history textbooks and others used in the public schools, a kind of consensus has emerged. As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center operated by the Freedom Forum puts it, 'Knowledge of the world’s religions is essential for comprehending much of history, literature, art and contemporary events' — and conveying that knowledge in public schools is constitutional. That doesn’t mean it is easy. Parents, school boards, administrators and teachers are justifiably nervous about bias, proselytizing and community division. Reports of proposed Bible courses that are theologically loaded do nothing to calm these fears. Alongside those who worry that teaching about different religions will turn into preaching on behalf of one are those equally worried that such teaching will convey the relativistic message that religious differences are inconsequential... For the past five years [in Modesto, Calif.], all ninth graders have been required to spend nine weeks — half a semester — studying major world religions. The course begins with a segment on the First Amendment and religious liberty in the United States, then describes in succession, though not comparatively, the beliefs and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The semester’s other half covers world geography; apparently, students should know about seven spiritual continents as well as the physical ones... A city of 190,000 in what locals routinely and sometimes proudly call the 'California Bible Belt,' Modesto has a large and growing evangelical population, well represented on the school board. The city also has an active group of politically and culturally liberal citizens. And it has plenty of religious diversity: mainline Protestants; Roman Catholics; Greek Orthodox; Assyrian Christians; Jews; and, thanks to recent immigration, significant numbers of Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Southeast Asian Buddhists and animists."