Published: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 11:08 p.m.
When it comes to the various religions of the world, ignorance is not bliss, educators say. Instead, ignorance leads to misunderstanding and to fear.
FYI: A TEST OF FAITH
See how many of these questions about the five major world religions you can answer correctly.
1) List these major world religions in the order in which they arose: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism?
2) What Jewish holiday did Jesus celebrate before his death?
3) What are the three parts of the Hindu trimurti?
4) What are the three parts of the Christian trinity?
5) What is the Hindu festival of lights called and what does it celebrate?
6) Muslims pray facing what sacred city?
7) What is the Hebrew name for the first five books of the Bible?
8) What does the word Islam mean?
9) Who led the Protestant Reformation by speaking out against teachings of the Catholic church?
10) What is the holy month of fasting in Islam?
11) Buddhism originated in the land now known as what?
12) Who betrayed Jesus?
13) What is a fatwa?
14) What is Rosh Hashanah and what do the Hebrew words mean?
15) What are the four noble truths of Buddhism?
"The First Amendment separates church from state, but not religion from public life," said Charles C. Haynes, an educator with the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va. "Religion always has been part of public life and probably always will be."
Public schools fall short if they don't include the study of different religions, according to Haynes and Warren A. Nord, authors of the book "Taking Religion Seriously Across the Curriculum" (Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, Aug. 1998).
The authors say it's possible for schools to teach about religions without promoting or denigrating any one particular faith.
"The bad news is, there was no way to take religion seriously in the curriculum," said Haynes, whose book is based on a 10-year study of religion in education.
"Everybody agreed that we should be teaching religion, but there was little effort to do it to some depth. The question was, how do we do it? What are the pedagogical methods that do it in a way that is constitutional?"
A move toward increasing the study of world religions is being felt in schools and universities around the country. Much of it is in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the unrest in the Middle East.
In October, the Waukesha, Wis., School Board president asked the school district's Curriculum and Instruction Committee to review how religion is taught in the schools and examine the possibility of adding a comparative religion course.
William Domina reportedly felt that differences between religious groups have led to international conflicts, and that he wanted all high school graduates to leave with a basic understanding of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.
That Americans are unfamiliar with the major religions of the world was made clear by a poll commissioned in 2002 by "U.S. News & World Report" and "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," a public television series.
The poll found that about 95 percent said they knew something about Christianity, with about 50 percent saying they knew the basic teachings of Judaism. About 34 percent said they were familiar with the Muslim faith; 27 percent, Buddhism; and 20 percent, Hinduism.
Haynes gives workshops for teachers and administrators throughout the nation where he finds educators like Scott Olsen, professor of comparative religions and philosophy at Central Florida Community College in Ocala.
Although Olsen teaches at the college level, he feels courses that teach about religion should be offered to students at the high school and even elementary levels.
Olsen noted that after studying comparative religions for at least one semester, students often develop a healthy respect for people of other faiths, while their own beliefs are strengthened.
"What I discovered over 17 years of teaching is oftentimes the students come in and they have a fear of studying other religions," Olsen said.
"Because much of the problems in the world right now have to do with misunderstanding of other cultures and other people's faiths, a lot of people feel threatened by other religions, and they shouldn't be," Olsen said. "Diversity in the world is a beautiful thing. It's not something to be shunned and attacked.
"What they find is that all of the religions we study have certain universal beliefs or even truths that are common to all of them," Olsen said. "In particular, they find that every religion has what we commonly call 'the golden rule.' "
Olsen pointed out that the verse cited by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, "Do to others what you would have them do to you," also appears in the writings of other faiths.
In Buddhism, there's "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." In Judaism, there's "What is hateful to you do not to your fellow man. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary."
"What we see is the divine is working through all of them," Olsen said. "We can begin to respect and cherish other peoples, other cultures and their particular way of life. The bottom line is, it would go a long way for helping to bring peace into the world."
The idea of religious study is not new to public school or university classrooms, nor is the controversy that follows it.
In August, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill required incoming freshmen to read "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations," by Michael Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College.
For several years, the university has had all incoming freshmen read a single book and be prepared to discuss it during their orientation week. They chose Sells' book due to the approaching anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Conservative Christians protested the text and brought suit, but a federal appeals court refused to stop the university from using the text.
The university agreed to permit students who did not want to read the book to write an essay explaining why.
In other cases, it is the way religion is being presented that creates concern.
In 1998, a lawsuit against Florida's Lee County school district was initiated by People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union and a private Florida law firm.
Aimed at a course called Bible History, the lawsuit prompted the state Department of Education to tighten its guidelines for such courses.
Once the state changed its guidelines, the Bible could still be taught, but only as an academic subject and not as historical fact, said Elliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director for the People for the American Way Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"These are much more academically formatted courses than Sunday school classes," Mincberg said. "The framework allows the course to be taught in a way that is legally and educationally sound.
"Excluding religion where it naturally plays a role in history is definitely wrong," Mincberg said. "But, there are dangers. If it's done without thorough preparation and training of teachers, it can really backfire."
Marian Rizzo writes for the Star-Banner in Ocala.
Answers to the quiz:
1) 1. Buddhism, 2. Judaism, 3. Hinduism, 4. Christianity, 5. Islam
3) Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer
4) The Father, God; the Son, Jesus; and the Holy Spirit
5) Diwali comes from the Sanskrit deepavali, which means row of lights. It celebrates the homecoming of Lord Rama.
8) Peace or surrender to God
9) Martin Luther
13) It is a Muslim religious edict that cannot be revoked.
14) It is the Jewish New Year and celebrates the creation of the world. The words mean: head of the year.
15) Life is frustrating and painful. Suffering has a cause. The cause of suffering can be ended. Following the way, or path, can end the cause of suffering.
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