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religious study in schoolby Gary Boyd

Joe Laycock, writing for qz.com, advocated the idea that religious education has value for reasons beyond the typically assumed benefits of improved morale character. According to Mr. Laycock, religious learning is key to understanding the global environment in which we live.

Mr. Laycock addresses mistaken concerns held by many that religion in an educational environment is illegal or unconstitutional somehow. He elucidates the meanings of two constitutional clauses regarding religion, and how the constitution in no way bans religious education. He sites the Everson v. Board of Education case of 1947 to demonstrate how the government has interpreted the constitution with respect to religion.

Why Religious Education?

For Laycock, religious education is important for primarily two reasons: First, students poorly versed in religion “will be ill-equipped to compete in a global marketplace”, where people from every part of the world make decisions and view issues through the eyes of the religious contexts they understand. Second, studying religion “gives students the opportunity to explore ‘big questions’ and cultivate moral agency”.

Laycock’s assertions that nothing constitutional prohibits religious studies in school is both correct, and crucial to understand in an effort to not lose ground on the field of religious freedom. I applaud him for taking up a topic essential to the preservation of religious freedom.

On the other hand, however, his arguments are flawed. Asserting that an individual gain the cultural fluency necessary to make better choices in situations where religious tradition and background have played a part in forming the dynamics, is tantamount to expecting a high school Spanish student to be fluent in that language upon completion of his high school education. Anyone who has studied a foreign language in high school understands the absurdity. The possibility that the student will delve deeply enough into a study of world religions sufficient to understand the context of international political and economic situations presupposes much greater depth of course work and dedication of study than what would be likely on a secondary or even on a college level.

Furthermore, while exposure to the religions of the world may inspire some soul-searching about the bigger questions of life, the character of an individual has largely been set by the time he or she reaches high school. Religious education is absolutely necessary, but should start much younger, and ideally occur in the home.

Laycock may not see the entire picture, but his advocacy for religious learning in school stills follows a wise course, and may, perhaps, lead to greater interest in religious teachings and principles upon completion of one’s education. The grand objective would be to start focused religious education in the home, in a religion of the family’s choice. Or, for those without the opportunity to live in a home where religion was stressed, to gain enough interest in religion as a result of education, to continue religious pursuits throughout life. After all, as Arthur Wellesley once said: “Educate men without religion and you make of them but clever devils”.

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