There is a broad consensus among scholars, educators, and policy makers that the academic study of religion should be a key component of K-12 education. If our students are to be truly educated – and empowered to participate in civic life – they need a rich understanding of religious diversity. Unfortunately, not all Americans are aware of this consensus. Too many still mistakenly believe it is unconstitutional for public schools to offer courses on comparative religion. But educators across the board agree: effective teaching about religious diversity is essential to K-12 education, and to the health of our multicultural democracy.
The question still stands, however: What do we mean by “effective teaching” in this context? What do K-12 students need to learn about religious diversity?
As director of the Religious Worlds of New York summer institute for teachers, I have been working for over a decade to encourage a shift from the study of “world religions” to the study of “lived religion” in K-12 schools. This piece will explain what I mean by lived religion, and give a brief example – we’ll get to that orange soon enough! (The Religious Worlds institute will meet for sixth time in July 2022. Educators can visit our website to learn more and apply.)
Most K-12 religious studies curricula are structured by the “world religions” pedagogic model, which focuses on a fixed set of so-called “major” traditions, each of which is defined by a fixed set of ostensibly common features: its core doctrines or beliefs, its sacred texts, the life of its founder, and its major holidays or ritual practices. The religious lives of 1.7 billion Muslims, for example, may be reduced to a discussion of the Five Pillars of Islam, brief selections from the Qur’an, an account of the life of Mohammad, and a discussion of the customs surrounding the Hajj or Ramadan. This “dates and doctrines” approach to the study of religion does not convey the rich diversity within all faith traditions, or give students any real understanding of their neighbors’ religious lives.
By contrast, the study of “lived religion” takes the everyday practices, discourses, and experiences of specific faith communities as the starting point for any discussion of religious diversity. It recognizes that Muslims in Dakar and Detroit, for example, may have dramatically different understandings of the doctrines, rituals, and texts at the heart of their tradition. Indeed, members of a single congregation — men and women, gay and straight, Black and White, young and old — may have dramatically different views of their traditions. Rather than focusing on canonical doctrines, lived religion pedagogy explores a wide range of popular beliefs and practices — all the creative things that people do with their traditions.
Which brings us to the orange that may or may not have been on your neighbor’s seder plate (or yours!) during Passover last spring. If you have ever studied Judaism, you probably know that many Jews commemorate the ancient exodus from Egypt with a ritual meal known as the Passover seder. On a seder table one usually finds an ornate plate of five or six symbolic foods representing central themes of the Passover story — horseradish to mark the bitterness of slavery, a lamb shank bone to recall the paschal sacrifice on the eve of the exodus, and so on. The symbolism of these foods is specified clearly in the Talmud and other rabbinic texts. But what about that orange? And that coconut? Traditional Jewish texts have nothing to say about these foods, but there they are anyway in quite a few Jewish homes. What’s up with that?