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Religion and Education

by Clive M. Beck - 1985

In this article, I wish to suggest an approach to the vexed question of the place of religion in schools. I will argue that religion must be dealt with in schools, but that not just any treatment of it will do. We must reach an adequate conception of the nature and role of religion and on this basis determine how it is to be handled in educational institutions.

This is a revised and shortened version of a paper presented at the Middle Atlantic States Philosophy of Education Society Spring Meeting, Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, May 4 and 5, 1985.

In this article, I wish to suggest an approach to the vexed question of the place of religion in schools. I will argue that religion must be dealt with in schools, but that not just any treatment of it will do. We must reach an adequate conception of the nature and role of religion and on this basis determine how it is to be handled in educational institutions.

Unfortunately, because there is so much groundwork to be done on religion as such, this article must be heavily weighted in that direction with an all too brief account of implications for education. I hope it will be possible for myself and others to devote more attention to the latter question in future writings.


During most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in the Western world, there has been a feeling that religion is declining steadily and may soon disappear. Science has raised questions about traditional doctrines, such as creationism and divine intervention in the world. Historical and literary studies have generated doubts about the divine origin of “sacred” texts. Sociologists such as Marx and psychologists such as Freud have given naturalistic and iconoclastic accounts of the origins of religious belief. Political theorists have shown the extent to which religious institutions are supported out of ulterior and distinctly secular motives. Social commentators have queried the morality of stands taken by religions on such matters as distribution of wealth, sex roles, and birth control. Social theorists such as Weber have indicated how modernization undermines many traditional forms of religion. And theologians themselves have made enormous concessions, retreating to a “God of gaps” and then to “the death of God” and “the secular city.”

To many it has seemed that religion, lacking a solid scientific, political, psychological, and moral base, must soon drift to an antiquarian backwater, of use only to a few superstitious souls who are too weak to throw away their crutches. As Julian Huxley said in 1927,

It will soon be as impossible for an intelligent, educated man or woman to believe in a god as it is now to believe that the earth is flat, that flies can be spontaneously generated, that disease is a divine punishment, or that death is always due to witchcraft. Gods will doubtless survive, sometimes under the protection of vested interests, or in the shelter of lazy minds, or as puppets used by politicians, or as refuges for unhappy and ignorant souls.1

The difficulty with all this, however, is that religion refuses to go away. Even many “intelligent, educated” people continue to adhere to it. Even materially favored peoples, such as Americans, have not abandoned religion.2 And religion is clearly alive and well among many poor and oppressed peoples around the globe. I believe the time has come to acknowledge that indeed religion will not go away and we must come to terms with it in a more adequate manner. The attempts to show that religion is really on its way out, despite appearances, have become almost as desperate and pathetic as the earlier attempts to defend all traditional religious dogma. Further, the denial of the existence of religion seriously hampers the development of more satisfactory religious forms. It is problematic to deny the reality of religion on the one hand and, on the other hand, make suggestions for reforming it.


While coming to terms with religion, however, we should not feel compelled to accept any and every form of religious belief and practice. We can take religion seriously and at the same time critically evaluate it. In particular, we should be acutely aware of the dangers of religion.

Most religions see themselves as bringing “good news,” at least to some people, and as having beneficial consequences for both individuals and groups. However, in the course of their history all religions have done a great deal of harm, and this must be acknowledged even by those who believe that the harm has been outweighed by good. Many wars, persecutions, discriminations, and bigoted and life-denying attitudes and behaviors have arisen at least in part out of religion.

Gregory Baum, speaking within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, describes religion as “ambiguous.” He points out that this is obvious even from the biblical documents themselves.

The Bible paints a highly ambivalent picture of religion. The faith of the people is ever threatened by various religious trends that undermine their openness to divine truth and falsify their understanding of the human world. It is possible to read the Scriptures as a textbook on the pathology of religion.3

Baum’s view of religion in general is as follows:

Religion . . . is a complex, ambiguous reality with many trends, some of which may even be contradictory. Because of this complexity, religion is able to blind some people and make others see, it produces sickness in some and leads to health in others, it acts as legitimation for the status quo and as catalyst for social change.4

Andrew Greeley gives an account of ethnicity in America that parallels Baum’s analysis of religion: Ethnic groups do both good and harm. On the positive side, “they keep cultural traditions alive, provide us with preferred associates, help organize the social structure, offer opportunities for mobility and success and enable men to identify themselves in the face of the threatening chaos of a large and impersonal society.” On the negative side, “they reinforce exclusiveness, suspicion and distrust, and . . . serve as ideal foci for conflict.” He concludes, however, with the observation that

ethnic groups are something like the Rocky Mountains or the Atlantic Ocean—whether we like them or not really doesn’t matter very much; they are concrete realities with which we must cope, and condemning or praising them is a waste of time.5

This point about ethnicity takes us back to our earlier observation with respect to religion, that it just will not go away. To condemn or praise religion in general is a waste of time. We should direct our energies rather toward assessing particular forms of religion and, where necessary, working to improve them.


If we are to come to terms with religion and participate in reforming it, we must become clearer about what it is. It is difficult to define religion precisely since it is an extremely varied phenomenon. On the one hand, there are many different religious traditions. There are the so-called great religions: Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on. To these must be added innumerable other religions, some of them polytheistic and/or animistic, which for varying reasons are usually left off the list of great religions. They include the ancient and contemporary American Indian religions of North, Central, and South America, the ancient and contemporary indigenous religions of Africa, the ancient religions of Mesopotamia, the Middle East, and Greece, the ancient and so-called pagan religions of Europe, and the indigenous religions of Australia and the South Pacific.

On the other hand, there are enormous variations within religions. For example, within particular traditions people range from strict orthodoxy and conservatism through to such extremes of liberalism that often fellow fundamentalists and liberals of different religions have more in common with each other than fundamentalists and liberals of the same religion. In Christianity, for example, we have a conservative-liberal continuum of this kind. Some Christians think of God as a person, very much like ourselves but much stronger, better, and so on; others do not believe that God is a person at all, but rather the Ground of all Being, or the personal and hopeful dimension of reality. Some Christians see prayer as straightforward asking for things; others as meditation, or thinking things over, or cultivating a sense of wonder and gratitude with respect to life and the universe. Often people do not admit to these divergent beliefs and attitudes since they wish, understandably, to continue as respected members of their religious community; but the differences exist nevertheless.

Despite this variety, however, it does seem possible to give a broad characterization of religion. The account must be in terms of typical rather than necessary features of religion, but this is true of a great many phenomena. The concept of religion is, to use Wittgenstein’s term, a “family” concept: One can recognize different instances of religion because they have at least a minimal number of nonnecessary “family characteristics.”

Among the typical features of religion are the following: tradition, community, ritual, interest in profound experiences, belief in the transcendent, belief in the supernatural (or magical), a world view, a way of life, a sense of origins and destiny, a sense of meaning in life, an attitude of acceptance of the divine order. Not all instances of religion have all these characteristics. For example, when a new religion is established, the role of tradition (at least the tradition of that religion) is minimal. Again, some religious people do not believe strictly in the supernatural (or magical). And again, some religions do not have a well-developed world view: Their focus is on just a few dimensions of reality. However, while perhaps none of these features is essential to religion, it is essential that a phenomenon have at least some of these features in order to count as religion.

The conclusion to be drawn from these definitional complexities is not that a cut-and-dried use of the term religion must be found but rather that discourse about religion is very difficult and requires that on any given occasion we be aware of the issues that are being raised and clear about how such terms are being used. As Wittgenstein said, somewhat overstating the case, it does not matter what we say so long as people know what we mean. Whether or not we use the word religion, and whatever we or others mean by it, the important thing is to be clear about the issues at hand. Further, it is important to be clear about the kinds of things religion is typically concerned with, so that we can give systematic attention to problems in this area.


So far my account of religion has been somewhat guarded, even negative. We have noted that religion will not go away, that we must come to terms with it whether we like it or not, that religion historically has done a great deal of harm, that religious forms are quite diverse, and that discourse about religion is complex and difficult. Now it is time to be rather more positive about religion. However, in order to be positive about religion (or negative for that matter), it is necessary to have a basis for judgment.

Where do the values come from whereby we judge religions and determine whether certain forms of religion are better than others? In my opinion, religions are to be assessed largely in terms of “basic human values”: happiness, companionship, friendship, love, self-respect, respect from others, knowledge, freedom, a sense of meaning in life, and so on. These are ultimately the chief things that make life good and worthwhile. They are the principal basis for assessing the value of everything in life, including religion.

Of course, we must be mindful of Dewey’s dictum that everything is both a means and an end, and this is as true of religion as it is of other phenomena. Religion does to some extent have intrinsic value and cannot be judged solely by external criteria. It has a life of its own. However, even the intrinsic values of religion must not be unduly contrary to more general human values. There may be a distinctively religious value associated with certain kinds of ritual, for example; but if the ritual happens to be large-scale human sacrifice it almost certainly should be rejected on general grounds.

What I am proposing, then, is that we adopt a somewhat “teleological” or “functional” view of religion. A major task of religion is to nurture a good life, in individuals and communities, to enable people to achieve basic human values. Religious demands are not primarily ends in themselves; they are not “absolutes.” Nor are they created by fiat by a divine being. When “God” wills something, this is because it is good; it is not good just because God wills it. Accordingly, those forms of religion are good that largely fulfill the role of enabling people to live a good life, to achieve basic human values.

Can religions be good in this sense? I believe they can be (although, as we have noted, they are not always so). Accordingly, I think there is solid basis for a relatively positive attitude toward religion, at least in certain forms.

Religion can play a positive role in people’s lives by virtue of the kinds of issues it raises. The typical concerns of religion outlined in the previous discussion of the nature of religion are ones that human beings must take up if they are to live a good life. Tradition, community, and certain kinds of ritual are important dimensions in people’s lives. Profound experiences—for example, those surrounding birth, puberty, and death—must not be left unexplored and unattended to. Some sense of “the transcendent,” of “something more,” must be provided for. People need a world view, a way of life, a concept of the origin and destiny of things, and a sense of meaning in life. And some degree of acceptance of the vicissitudes of life is necessary, even if we do not see them as the working out of a divine plan. We may not choose to call these concerns religious: we may prefer such words as metaphysical, philosophical, or spiritual. However, we cannot deny that these matters are important, or that they have traditionally been addressed by religions.

I would suggest, then, that it is possible for people both to be religious and to lead good lives, achieving basic human values for themselves and others. The lives of a great many religious people, past and present, attest to this fact. Religions typically impose limitations on a person’s thought, but the same is true of prevailing outlooks and ideologies in a nonreligious community. Religions confront important issues; and given the possibilities noted earlier of adopting a distinctive set of interpretations and practices within a particular religion, it is feasible for an adherent of a religion to arrive at a sound world view and a good way of life.

It should be noted, however, that while I have argued that religious people can have a sound world view and a good way of life, I believe that the same is true of nonreligious people. Contrary to what religions have often claimed, one does not have to be religious in order to live a good life. The lives of a great many nonreligious people attest to this fact. The large questions raised by religions have also been raised in nonreligious contexts, and relatively satisfactory nonreligious answers have often been given. It is true that the outlooks of nonreligious people have often been enriched by concepts and images from religious traditions; but religions have often drawn to equal advantage on “secular” sources.


If we are going to adopt a relatively positive attitude toward religion we should, I think, do so with respect to all religions that are compatible with a good way of life. The principle of religious tolerance—or religious pluralism—should be applied both within religions and among different religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and dozens of other religions have the capacity to serve as a person’s religion in a good sense of the word. What must be examined is the adequacy of a particular form of religion, whichever religious tradition it is associated with.

The differences between religions have been greatly exaggerated. It is said, for example, that Christians believe in a personal God whereas Hindus do not; but in fact many “liberal” Christians do not believe that God is a person in any straightforward sense, and many Hindus have a rather personal conception of God. It is said that Muslims are monotheists whereas Hindus are polytheists; but in fact the notion of one ground of being is fundamental to Hinduism. As we saw before, within all the religions contrasts can be found between fundamentalists and liberals, conservatives and progressives. In every religion there is enormous room for interpretation by individuals and groups according to their particular beliefs and needs.

It is likely that on certain matters a particular religion will be stronger than others. For example, it seems to me that Islam is strong in the extent to which it takes political and economic issues seriously; and Hinduism and Buddhism show strength in the emphasis they place on connections between body, mind, and spirit. However, other religions are likely to have strengths in areas in which these religions are relatively weak. Besides, individuals and groups within other religions can reinterpret and modify their religion so that it gives adequate place to these other considerations. All religions by virtue of their distinctive history have many gaps; however, such gaps can be filled, as they so often have been in the past, and the fact that different religions at a particular time have different gaps is no basis for asserting a general superiority of one religion over others.

It is sometimes assumed that we have to believe that our religion is the one true religion if we are to remain committed to it. However, in general this is not so. We may draw an analogy here with patriotism. I may love my country, cherish its traditions, be loyal to it, and even regard it as the best country in the world for me (because of my upbringing, distinctive needs, and personal ties); but none of this requires that I believe my country to be the most lovable, the most worthy of loyalty, the best country in the world for everyone. In fact it is highly unlikely that it is. Similarly, strong commitment to a religion does not require a belief that it is the one true religion or that those who belong to it are superior to those who do not.


We saw earlier that there is within any religion a broad range of approaches, from the most fundamentalist to the most liberal. If we are to adopt a relatively positive approach to religion, does this include fundamentalist forms of religion, ones that would reject the very approach to religion I am advocating?

As I have already suggested at several points, I believe that it is very important to allow for and respect a wide variety of religious forms, including fundamentalist ones. Different people have different needs: Some people feel comfortable with a sense of dependence on God; others need greater freedom and independence. Some people need a concept of divine intervention and providence in everyday life; others are more skeptical in such matters.

This does not mean that religious belief or outlook is “purely relative” or “subjective” in some pejorative sense. Our beliefs and responses cannot be just anything we choose; they must be objectively appropriate given our distinctive life circumstances. For example, if I am an astronomer or a geologist, it may be necessary for me to have a comprehensive, complex theory of the origins of the earth as part of my religion or faith; whereas if I am not a scientist, a much simpler and more limited conception may do. The variations here are not subjective but arise out of objective differences in circumstances. Even false beliefs may sometimes be appropriate for a given individual or group, from an objective point of view. If a person belongs to an isolated community in which it is generally held that the universe was created by God from nothing about six thousand years ago, such a belief, even if false, might be the most functional for that individual. (I say it might be the most functional, because there are several other things one would have to know about the individual and the community before one could make a confident judgment)

Does truth not matter, then? Of course it does. False beliefs are to be avoided, other things being equal, since if the universe and human beings are not in fact as we believe them to be we may make serious mistakes in attempting to relate to them. However, other things are not always equal. In some cases false beliefs may be quite important to us, and in other cases they may do no harm. As we have seen, a major task of religion is to nurture a good life, in individuals and communities, and if we make truth an absolute and rush about trying to uncover inaccuracies in people’s beliefs we may undermine rather than nurture good lives.

In religious matters, then, we should “let a hundred flowers bloom.” And fundamentalism is one such flower. However, this position should be qualified in two ways. First, we have a certain responsibility to ensure that fundamentalists (or other religious groups) are not doing undue harm to themselves. This is a difficult area, and the nature and extent of one’s responsibility will vary with one’s role in a community. However, if one genuinely thinks that a particular belief is harmful to the individual holding it, one may (depending on the circumstances) have some obligation to try to modify that belief, while respecting the rights and dignity of the individual.

Second, we have a responsibility (and they have a responsibility) to ensure that fundamentalists (or other religious groups) are not doing undue harm to others. The rights and dignity of nonfundamentalists (including, in many cases, their own children) must also be respected. Even though a person may believe that there is only one true path and those who are not on it are wicked, there is a limit to the extent to which they can legitimately give expression to this belief in their dealings with others. (And belief that one is on the one true path can lead to enormously prejudical behavior toward others.) Limits and procedures must be established to ensure that respect for the needs and rights of fundamentalists is not unduly at the expense of the needs and rights of others. It should be noted, however, that the systematic establishment of such limits and procedures assumes in the first place a serious acceptance of and coming to terms with religion, including fundamentalism.


We have seen that religion typically contains a number of elements—tradition, community, profound experiences, a conception of origins and destiny, a world view, a way of life, a sense of the transcendent, a conception of the meaning of life, and so on—that are important to nonreligious people as well. This does not mean that everyone is or should be religious. It does mean, however, that the educational needs of religious and nonreligious people in these areas are very similar. Both categories of people need to develop in what we might call the “religion-like” aspects of their lives. These will need to be treated somewhat differently depending on whether one is actually religious and depending on the type of religious or nonreligious tradition and community one is associated with. But there is sufficient common ground here to justify extensive joint study in these aspects of life in schools.

Does this mean that there should be religion courses in schools? Not necessarily. But it does mean that in those schools where there are religion courses these can be used to help both religious and nonreligious students, so long as one does not force all students to be (or declare themselves to be) religious. Further, it means that other subjects such as values, literature, history, social studies, environmental studies, science, family studies, and health must give due attention to religion-like issues, whether or not there are courses in religion in the school.

There are indeed rather strong arguments for having special courses on religious or religion-like topics in public schools. There are concepts and methodologies associated with the study of religion and religion-like phenomena that probably are most effectively acquired in specialized courses on the subject and then applied in the integrated study of these matters in other school subjects. Further, this field is so vast and so important that it is as deserving of special subject status as other fields such as history, literature, or science. However, even if it is not possible to have special courses in this area, there is still a great deal that can be done in other subjects and in the general life of the school.

Study in this area is especially important for the values-education program of the school. It is impossible to deal adequately with values without giving comprehensive and sustained attention to religious or religion-like issues. Where values education appears to be proceeding well without religious or religion-like education, this is usually either because a religious background is there already or because one has an overly narrow conception of religion that leads one to overlook the religious components in the situation. Religion, as we have seen, touches on our overall understanding of the nature and meaning of life and the universe. It is unthinkable that one would be able to resolve values issues, or even come to grips with them, without bringing to bear such perspectives.

For example, in discussing the value of friendship one must consider the extent to which it is the lot or role of humans to live in isolation, in closely knit communities, or in some fashion in between. To an extent one can settle friendship issues in the light of such moral virtues as kindness and unselfishness and of such other values as the satisfaction derived from human interaction. But perspectives of a religious type about the goals of human life, the importance of community, and the nature of human nature will very legitimately affect one’s judgments.

Again, in considering issues such as the sanctity of human and nonhuman life forms and the importance of protecting the world environment, one will of course take account of or be influenced by conceptions of the nature of the universe, the place of various life forms in the general scheme of things, and the relative value of domination and preservation, exploitation and protection.

Of course, it is possible in a school system to have a subject called “values” without having a subject called “religion.” Further, as we have noted, one can deal with religion-like issues without having a subject called “religion.” The point I am making is that as one studies values one will inevitably raise religion-like issues and make religion-like assumptions. Further, insofar as systematic “religious education” is possible in a school system, if it is done well it will provide considerable assistance to the values program. Hence, while one should not necessarily postpone introducing a values program until a religion program is in place, in proceeding with a values program one should not assume that it is “religion-free.” Nor, having a values program, should one think that the establishment of a religion program is no longer an important goal to pursue.

Courses or units in religious or religion-like issues should as far as permissible have a strong comparative emphasis. As we have seen, different religions have a great deal in common, and it is important for students to see this and also to be able to draw on the concepts, images, and practices of various religions in strengthening their own world view and way of life. It may be felt by some that a comparative approach may pose a threat to students’ loyalty to their own religion (if they have one). However, if in fact different religions are largely in the same “line of business,” students will see no strong reason to change religions but rather will be encouraged by seeing how many people in the world are pursuing religious or spiritual goals.

At the same time, where possible, there should be optional courses or units in the students’ own religions. Many people who were religious in their childhood and see themselves as having rejected their religion have retained much more of it than they realize. They need an opportunity to systematically explore their “roots” in order to reassess their attitudes and outlooks. Also, for many the rejection of religion was quite traumatic and involved a simple suppression of belief. A relatively objective study of their childhood religion may be of considerable therapeutic value, enabling them to arrive at more well-founded, relaxed attitudes toward various elements in their upbringing.

One of the key issues in education today is the extent to which parents should be able to control their children’s schooling and, in particular, the extent to which the school has an obligation to reinforce (or at least not undermine) students’ commitment to the family’s religion (if there is one). From what I have said about individual differences in religious need, it would seem to follow that the school must be very careful to respect people’s religious commitment and largely work to develop their religious and spiritual life rather than redirect it. It should not be working to undermine religious belief in the name of “truth,” but rather should help people find the religious truth that is appropriate for them and their family and community. However, by the same principle, schools should make available to students through a rich education a great many options to select from in religious and religion-like matters, so that they can indeed choose a world view and way of life most appropriate to their needs. Parents should be encouraged to see that the religious or religion-like perspectives appropriate for them may not be precisely the same as the ones appropriate for their children. While educators must respect fundamentalist parents and others with strong religious views, they will often find themselves in a mediating role, trying to aid in a dialogue over what religious or religion-like education is in the best interests of the various parties involved. One thing is clear, however: It is not acceptable for the school simply to opt out of education in religion and related areas.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 2, 1985, p. 259-270
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 679, Date Accessed: 10/28/2021 3:26:35 AM

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