The United States is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world. Despite the fact that during their lives young Americans will deal with followers of religions other than their own, few of them know much about any religion except their own. Seven years ago Modesto, California, a city of 200,000 residents about ninety miles east of San Francisco, decided to do something about this. It was then that the Modesto public schools established a mandatory, semester-long course in world religions for ninth grade students. (1) Teacher-led committees, which designed the course with the help of the Arlington, Virginia-based First Amendment Center, consulted extensively with parents and clergy in the community served by the schools during each stage of development. (2) This strategy not only secured important input but also defused potential resistance.
The Modesto world religions course begins with an overview of First Amendment rights and responsibilities, then focuses on six religious traditions – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism. Each tradition gets the same amount of attention. Students study the history of each faith, its basic teachings, and its social impact. Teachers are forbidden from proselytizing or revealing their own faith stance, if any. Their job is to teach about religion in a fair and neutral way, not to promote it. "Every class in the district reads the same textbook, watches the same videos and follows the same scripted lesson plans." (p. 42) In every section students are encouraged "to share their own beliefs and (to) ask questions." (p. 42) Remarkably, over the seven years of the program's existence, only ten families have exercised an opt-out provision which excuses their children from the course.
Recently, the First Amendment Center evaluated the course. In the evaluation researchers interviewed students four times: prior to the course, during the course, immediately after the course, and six months after the course. Among other things, they found the following:
- Students became "more tolerant of other religions and more willing to protect the rights of other faiths." (p. 44)
- Students learned a lot about all six faith traditions studied.
- A significant number of students learned about aspects of their own religion that they had not known previously.
- Students who embraced a faith tradition at the start of the course also embraced it at the end of the course. Learning about other religions did not prompt students to abandon their own; and
- The greatest barrier to teaching about religion in the public schools is not the law, parents, or the community; rather, it is a scarcity of teachers qualified to teach the subject.
- Accordingly, researchers from the First Amendment Center recommend a world religions requirement in college teacher preparation programs for all social studies majors, and ongoing in-service training for teachers who are involved in a Modesto-like program. (p. 46)
Despite its benefits, the Modesto world religions course has two defects. Firstly, it ignores many religions with a significant following. Secondly, coverage of the non-religious perspective, atheism, is optional with the teacher. Nevertheless, the Modesto schools are to be congratulated for taking the lead in America in preparing their students to live and work in a religiously diverse world.
1. See Carrie Kilman, "One Nation, Many Gods," Teaching Tolerance, Fall 2007,
pp. 38-46. References to this article hereinafter will be by page number.
2. See www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
© Tom Shipka 2007