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How Religion Can be Taught at School

Searching for an Appropriate Relation between Religion and Curriculum Design

In recent years, increasing diverse attitudes to religious education in the classroom make many private and public schools have to face the controversy of ¡¨should religion be taught as a subject at schools?¡¨ (e.g., Kaiser, 2003; Slattery & Rapp, 2003; Wallace, Forman, Caldwell & Willis, 2003). As a result, many administrators and teachers are making efforts in searching for an appropriate relationship between religion and curriculum design in order to ensure that they handle this sensitive issue in a democratic fashion. Indeed, religious topics make teachers feel nervous when introducing the conflicts in religions to students of different races in class (Joanne M. &Kappan, 2003). Especially, at the current sensitive moment, after the 9/11 event happened, both the teachers and administrators have to learn how to face the challenge of explaining the confronting positions between Islam and Christians.


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Difficulties and Problems to Investigate

Generally speaking, both teachers and students have their problems in religious education that probably only a perfectly designed curriculum can resolve. For teachers, they don¡¦t know how much they are allowed to lecture about the religious subjects in class and what are the best applicable pedagogies for teaching religions. For students, they are too young to recognize if their teacher introduces a certain religion with personal prejudice, and to identify if the teacher has an intention to preach for his own religion. In other words, it is possible that students are misled to favour or disfavour a religion because of complying with their teachers¡¦ thoughts.

A Problem of Religion Textbook

Kasier (2003) argues the inappropriate religion introductions might perplex students toward religion if the teacher does not instruct it in a neutral attitude. He believes the wrong adoption of textbooks for teaching religions is one of the serious problems. Accordingly, he points out that a religious subject textbook-like ¡§ A History of Western Society¡¨ might not be a proper religious material, because it creates a negative impression to students that Islam is disfavored.

Text with Bias

In reality, Kaiser (2003) indicates Mckay¡¦s seventh edition religion textbook as well as the popular ¡§ A History of Western Society¡¨ is indeed an improper religious textbook choice because it establishes a negative impression for the Islamic prophet Mohammed. Actually, I agree with his statement after reading the following text in this book: ¡§ The faith of Allah united the Arabs sufficiently to redirect their warlike energies. Hostilities were launched outward¡¨ ( Mackay et al, 1991, p.222-225).

Teachers’ Responsibility

From the perspectives of ethics and democracy, I believe a teacher needs to have a neutral attitude when teaching all of the religions of the East and West. This means that he needs to have a sense of responsibility to impartially and calmly identify for students what are the texts with bias and what are the suitable materials and descriptions of introducing a religion. In other words, a moral educator is one who can distinguish for students if the texts contain misleading descriptions or not.

Government’s Position toward Religion Education

In truth, the US constitution and Supreme Court have clearly stated that mere inclusion of religion as a subject in the public school curriculum does not offend constitutional principles. Nevertheless, it has left open the possibility that certain pedagogic choices might, and the definition of the appropriate religious education is still very ambiguous( Kaiser, 2003).

Religion Curriculum Designed from Perspective of Democratic Theory

I believe that an ideal pedagogic choice in a religion curriculum is one that takes democratic theory into consideration because in many cases of failure religious education reveals the religious education should not be delivered in a compelling fashion (Kaiser, 2003; Marshall & Kappan, 2003; Slattery, 2002). Namely, the introducing time of each religion must depend on the percentages of the believers¡¦ populations in various religions.

A Failure Case of Religion Education

The following is a case that explains how a compelling method makes religious education unsuccessful. This famous event happened in 1965 in Pennsylvania. An insistent activity of prayer training in Abington Senior High School caused a student Schempp and his parents’ objection, then sue the school. What happened was the school let ten selected outstanding students read the Holy Bible and broadcasted it to each room of the school¡¦s buildings.

In this case, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania judged that this practice of school was unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The reason is that the First Amendment of the American constitution suggests a neutral toward any religion, and the prayer activity designed by the school was obviously not from a neutral standpoint.

The statement in The First Amendment and a letter sent by Schempp

Let’s investigate the logic and the balance between the First Amendment and the teenager student, Shempp’s objection letter. The statement that suggests schools’ neutral and moderate position toward any religion in the First Amendment states is:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (Amendment I, 1791).

And, the sixteen-year-old Schempp in Abington Senior High School accordingly pointed out that the school violated the constitution by intending to preach Christianity.

“I would very greatly appreciate any information that you might send regarding possible Union action and/or aid in testing the constitutionality of Pennsylvania law which arbitrarily (and seemingly unrighteous and unconstitutionally) compels the Bible to be read in our public school system” (Schempp, 2004).

Schempp’s victory

Finally, the Abington Senior High School was struck down because of its aggressive pedagogy which made Schempp and his parents feel being compelled. From my view, being forced to listen to the other students’ bible reading “every day” would be very stressful if a student is not a Catholic and Christian. Moreover, the US First Amendment clearly specifies neutrality, which means neither aiding nor opposing religion, so the school should not go too far. In this case, I think that Abington would not be litigated if Christianity was transmitted in a softer and more proper approach. Indeed, this case that happened fifty years ago influenced Schempp a lot, so he wrote a paper last year titled ¡¨ A Democratic Way¡¨ by remembering all the processes he went through with his school and court (Schempp, 2004). In this article, he cited a democratic theory written by Lindemann and Smith (1949) to defend his own behaviour fifty years ago:
¡§Democracy is a state of mind. It is a state of mind, first, of and toward the majority. It is a state of mind, second, toward and of the minority. It is a state of mind, finally and fundamentally, by and for the individual¡¨ (Lindemann & Smith, 1949).

Religion Education Approach of an Explorer Philosopher, Patrick Slattery

A postmodernist, Slattery (2002) has a similar insight as Schempp toward religion education. In ¡§Ethics and the foundations of education¡¨, he profoundly expressed that excessive religious education might replace the essential sex education. Slattery (2002) considers religious education might develop students¡¦ wrong concepts such as “body, masturbation, orgasm, or sexual intercourse as the gravest temptations and the impure thoughts”( Slattery & Rapp, 2002, p.168).

Exploring the Value of Religion Education

As an educational explorer, he incisively interprets the Christian sisters as ¡§nuns¡¨ to announce his negative position and his antagonistic feeling toward authority from church (Slattery & Rapp, 2002). Moreover, he honestly reveals how he struggled to overcome his religious guilt of masturbating when he was a young junior high school student who learned in a polluted religious classroom.

With the education experience of a high school principal, Slattery (2002) emphasizes the significance of students’ freedom by signifying that religious education might transfuse the wrong perceptions to students, including the incorrect thoughts like “a sexless celibate life was clearly superior” and “a devout and pure married couple is identified as better” (Slattery & Rapp, 2002, p.168).

Reasons for Opposing Religious Education

In fact, Slattery (2002) believes that teachers have to explore if we do respect our students¡¦ liberty and their own choices. Does he suggest we seriously think about which one is more important for the hearth of the young students, the topics of “homosexuality and sex education¡¨ or ¡§bible study and prayer training”? He indicates that the labouring and time-consuming prayer and the bible reading should be seriously doubted, because students might be confused by the guilt of adolescence, and loses their rights of obtaining sexual education which really can strengthen them to be more healthy (Slattery & Rapp, 2002).

Religion Education Approach of Citizen Philosopher, John Dewey

Likely, another philosopher who considers the teachers¡¦ roles as citizens, John Dewey, also supports that excessive religious education is not a proper idea (Dewey, 1971). Shea (1992) categorizes Dewey, as a naturalist, a humanist, and an atheist. In fact, this social-realist, as well as citizen philosopher, believes that educators should ¡§eliminate any sacramental order that threatens full attention to democratic politics and its sacraments¡¨ (Shea, 1992, p.80).

Reasons for Rejecting Religion

Dewey thinks traditional religions with their cognitive claims, their obscurantism and their divisiveness, could not survive the scrutiny of liberated intelligence and he hints the teachers to get rid of the limitation from religious education and train the students to be better citizens but not a religious believer. Shea (1992) commented that the vast and mysterious public human good became Dewey¡¦s God, and his life in its service became his religion.

From a Christian to a Citizen

Accordingly, he rejects the importance of religious education in his ¡§ Common Faith¡¨, which reveals that he had to leave his Christian religion and its concern with the individual interior life in order to become properly political, public, communal, and sacramental (Dewey, 1934). No wonder, Dewey wishes the goal of education for everybody is to be able to participate in our society as a citizen, so he would not allow Christianity to threaten the students¡¦ attention to democratic politics.

Two Curriculum Theories Applicable for Religion Education

Religious education is not illegal, but it needs to be taught in a prudently designed curriculum based on more unprejudiced foundations. In fact, there are three systems provided by the Supreme Court that can be regarded as appropriate theories of designing religion curriculum, which are regulations taking human rights into concern. What’s more, a list of twelve rules written by Marshall and Kappan according to constitutional principles can be employed as consulting references for curriculum designers.

Lemon, Endorsement, and Coercion Tests

The US Supreme Courts have developed three different types of tests for these kinds of cases: the Lemon, endorsement, and coercion tests that the administrators and teacher should notice when designing the religious education curriculum (Kaiser, 2003). Two of them are written by court judges.

Applying lemon as a standard curriculum theory in religious course design

Firstly, the ¡§Lemon¡¨ is a method of analysis with three criteria declared by the Supreme Court in 1971, which evaluates if teachers instruct in a neutral manner and violate the constitution. The scales in Lemon Test have functions of raising the curriculum writers¡¦ awareness if there is any suspicion that the completed curriculum exists bias. For example, one of the criteria asks ¡§whether the curriculum has a secular purpose?¡¨ to warn curriculum writers not to integrate any personal opinion into the curriculum.

Applying Endorsement Test as a standard curriculum theory in religious course design

Secondly, the “Endorsement Test” designed by O’Connor in 1985 focuses on examining if the state governments interfere with the schools’ religion education by sending any documents of disapproval or approval for any religion. Actually, O’Connor¡¦s purpose in writing this system is for emphasizing the importance of a neutral position in religious education and supporting the previous Lemon system, which curriculum writers can apply to protect their well-designed curriculum from being oppressed by government officials.

Applying Coercion Tests as curriculum theory in religious course design

Thirdly, the “Coercion Test” provided by Kennedy in 1989 acknowledges if the environment of school and pedagogies in religion curriculum are coercive or not. The coercion analysis system informs teachers not to bound students by establishing inappropriate learning conditions such as forcing background chanting music or dimly-lit gym for relaxation.

Marshal and Kappa’s Twelve Problems and Solutions as Curriculum Theories of Religion Education

Despite many voices of objection in religious education from the perspective of democracy theory, Marshall and Kappan (2003) provide their positive position of religiosity among American adolescents. They believe that if religious education can be conducted in a way in which the students¡¦ variations can be respected, the religious topics should be addressed in classrooms. In one of their article” Religion and Education: Walking the Line in Public Schools”, they provided twelve potential problems for teachers to resolve, in order to inspect if they distinguish a proper pedagogy of teaching religion. With the list of twelve problems, the teachers can assess if they are qualified for religious education. And, they can learn to be qualified by referring to the standard solutions for the twelve problems.

Problem Example

One of the problem examples is ¡§A Muslim girl wears a head covering (heap) to class, how you should do?¡¨ And, the lawful solution for this should be ¡§this is okay as free religious express¡¨ (Marshal & Kappan, 2003, p.242). In general, Marshall and Kappan agree that the ignorance of other religions needs to be avoided.

Curriculum Theory and Philosophy Application in Shempp¡¦s Case

Slattery’s Thinking

As Slattery had said, religious topics such as prayer training are always very time-consuming and laborious (Slattery & Ross, 2002). I think this point should be applied by the principal or a curriculum designer of Abington, which means they can reduce the time and frequency of the bible reading. Let¡¦s consider this: if the bible study is only twice a week, will Schempp and his parents are still angry about it?

Curriculum Design Consulting Resource: Lemon System

Indeed, by applying the above three evaluation systems as religion curriculum theories, the conflict between Abington Senior High School and Schempp will be avoided. My reasons are as follows. First, the restricted religion instruction in Christianity will be detected when the curriculum designer promotes bible study too frequently in an aggressive way. In other words, ¡§merely bible reading” will be identified to be a bias on the other religions by the Lemon system. Through noticing the Lemon text of “advancing or inhibiting religion”, the favouritism and favour of the church authority will be recognized by teachers and administrators.

Curriculum Design Consulting Resource: Coercion Test

Second, by referring to the coercive test, the classroom broadcasting will not be adopted to a good pedagogy of bible study. If the principle perceives the ¡§coercive listening¡¨ conception at that time, the school will not be struck down by the court judge.


Finally, I think that religious education is still necessary because it transmits the “ethic” and  “cultural difference” ideas to students. However, it needs to be taught under a well-concerning curriculum. The pedagogies of introducing religion need to be carried out in an equal, non-compelling, and peaceful fashion. I think religion education at school should be more like history, a cultural or a language class, which should be not similar to a worship process in a church or a temple. Just like John Dewey¡¦s standpoint, he wants everyone to have a ¡§conversion¡¨, but not to a historic community that already possessed a language belief. Therefore, the religion course at school should be for learning other people¡¦s believes and make us be able to integrate into the other people¡¦s cultures, but not for unifying all the people into only one belief.


Dewey, J. (1934). A Common Faith. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press
Eduard, C., & Smith, C. S., (1949). The Democratic Way of Life. New York: Mentor Books.
Hanus, J. (1984). Religion and democratic politics. Teaching Political Science, 11, 182-190.
Kaiser, E. D. (2003). Jesus heard the Word of God, but Mohammed had convulsions: how religion clause principles should be applied to religion in the public school social studies curriculum. Journal of Law, 3, 321-356
Marshall, J. M., & Kappan, P. D. (2003). Religion and education: walking the line in public schools, Academic Search Premier, 85, 239-246
Pryor, C. (2003). Writing, A Philosophy Statement. Education¡¦s Workbook. McGraw-Hill
Shea, W. M. (1992). On John Dewey¡¦s spiritual life. American Journal of Education, 101, 71-81
Slattery, P., & Rapp, D. (2002). Ethics and the Foundations of Education. Allyn and Bacon
Wallace, J.M., Forman, T. A., Caldwell, C. H., & Willis, D. S. (2003). Religion and U.S. secondary school students, Current patterns, recent trends, and sociodemographic correlates. Youth & Society, 35, 98-125

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