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How to Begin
Educators can teach about the religions of the world through the lens of critical literacy and religious pluralism, enabling students to gather facts, compare and contrast the various ideologies, and thereby find the commonalities that link all to the other.
According to Religious Tolerance.Org of Ontario, Canada, there are 40 organized religions or faith groups. Attempting to teach a unit on all forty religions/faith groups would be daunting, if not impossible. Therefore, before beginning, it is necessary to break down the hierarchy (classification levels) in order to determine the focus of a unit.
Over the many millenniums of human existence, society has formed, morphed and sub-divided its idea of the Divine. Religion, it could be said, is an ever-changing entity. Therefore, there is no way to look at world religions without touching upon the fact that even among various groups, there are sub-divisions and/or spin offs. Like a huge spider's web, world religion has at the center the Divine with many paths, sub paths and tributaries leading to the center. As mentioned before, it would be virtually impossible to cover it all.
Some of the levels of classifications among the various religion/faith groups are:
- Synod, Diocese, Federation, Association, Council, Coven, Community
- Church, Mosque, Temple, Synagogue
By using the levels of classification, the historic connections to religions can be found, as well as the similarities in ideology.
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Overview vs. Individual Approach
This picture above shows the symbols of nine of the world's many religions/faith groups.
Many educators will wish to give an overview of world religions. Like a smorgasbord of information, an overview gives students a "taste" of each religion/faith group, usually touching upon facts about when and how it developed and the most basic beliefs. Obtaining a clear sense of any religion using this method is difficult. In addition, it is easy to have misconceptions when information is only skimmed from the top of the well of knowledge.
The following is a list of some of the world religions:
- Christian - Catholic, Protestant, etc.
Creating lesson plans that focus on one religion/faith group at a time or comparing and contrasting two different groups allows for a more comprehensive investigation, which leads to a more in-depth understanding.
Regardless of which approach the educator takes, they will want to cover the various aspects of a religion, or religions in general. Some of the aspects that can be discussed are:
- Rites and Rituals
- Holy Days
- Personal Spiritual Practices
- History of the Religion
- Key Figures in the Religion
For example, if the educator is doing a general overview on Christianity, personal spiritual practices such as fasting might be discussed.
However, if the unit is focused on Catholicism, then there would be a need to hone in on more specific information on the particulars of fasting from the Catholic viewpoint. For instance, fasting is a mandatory practice at certain times of the liturgical calendar, or fasting was once required before Catholics could receive communion.
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Resistance and Fear
Many school systems are reluctant to include lessons on the religions of the world into their curriculum. Parents are often afraid that in learning about other religions, children will turn away from their own faith. School administrators are often resistant to include anything that might cause controversy; they would much rather stick to teaching English, Math and Science. Yet, all will agree that knowledge is the only way to end fear.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as saying, "Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control."
Teaching students about the religions of the world in an unbiased, non-threatening and open manner will allow the students to gain knowledge in order to find connections that will, therefore, lead to ending fear of the "other."
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Religious pluralism is a way to encounter, connect and discuss the religion/faith groups of the world. This form of inquiry is non-judgmental, requiring a commitment to understanding that goes beyond differences.
Teaching through the lens of religious pluralism creates an environment within the classroom for sound inquiry, reflective deconstruction and profound comprehension.
Studying world religions through the lens of pluralism, means more than simply teaching facts from a book. Religious pluralism opens the door for conversations and discussion with members of other religion/faith groups, as well as sharing traditions and customs without judgment.
An example is found on many college campuses where interfaith sharing has become a welcome tradition. Students from other cultures, countries and faith groups share their traditions with the entire campus. For instance, Hindu students share The Festival of Lights, known as Diwali, with their classmates (see picture), explaining symbology, myths and customs. Diwali occurs during the same time that many other faith groups hold celebrations of "light." Comparing and contrasting the origins of Advent/Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and the winter solstice, all of which include traditions involving light, with Diwali is made easy. An open dialogue between people, who would not typically share such information, occurs naturally through the sharing of traditional foods, music and/or dance.
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Questions for the Asking
When studying world religions, it is easy to become overwhelmed. The convenience of a list of questions to use as a platform from which to launch discussions is a versatile tool to have on hand.
The following questions are meant as a guide for discussion within the classroom.
- What name(s) are given to the Divine? Are there any similarities in other religion/faith groups?
- What are the chief celebrations/observances of this particular religion/faith group? What time of the year do they occur? Can you think of other religion/faith group observances that occur at or around the same time of year? Are there similarities? Why do you think that is?
- Are there any myths or legends that can be found in other religion/faith groups? Is the coincidence? (For instance, the Lakota Nation in America has a flood myth, as do all the Abrahamic religions.)
- What are the main tenets of this particular religion/faith group? How does it compare to others? (For example, can the idea of "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" be found in other religion/faith groups?)
- What symbology is there within this particular religion/faith group? Can similar symbology be found within others?
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When students are able to find connections to other religion/faith groups, they are less likely to continue the "them vs. us" mindset. For instance, in world religions lesson plans for high school, knowing that all major religions believe in the idea of, "First, do no harm," helps students find connections that make common ground for discussion. Viewing the unit study through the lens of religious pluralism gives connections found a place from which they can be observed, discussed and/or shared.
Images: Symbols of Religions by Manop under Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons; Diwali Celebration by author
- Source: Author's own experience
- Religious Tolerance: Religious and Spiritual Faith Groups in U.S. - http://www.religioustolerance.org/
- Adherents: World Religions by Size - http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html/