Believe It or Not

By: Marisa Fasciano

Overview: Four ways to include religiously unaffiliated students in classroom content about religion.

Editor’s note:This is the third post of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with Teaching Tolerance that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog post offered tips for promoting empathy during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs, and the second blog post suggested strategies for encouraging students to ask about different beliefs respectfully. 

A health teacher in Seattle made this thoughtful comment following the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect: “Many of my students are from other cultures who highly value religion, and it has been a challenge for me to illustrate to my classes that everyone has a spiritual/values-specific identity, whether it is associated with an organized religion or not.”

The need to respect religious differences applies to the full spectrum of belief and nonbelief, from the most devout adherent of a religion to the most committed atheist. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion is rapidly on the rise, with one-fifth of the U.S. public falling into that category in 2012.

When developing learning environments that foster respect for religious diversity, it’s important to consider the experiences of religiously unaffiliated students. Here are four ways that educators can help such students feel included in classroom content about religion:

1. Explore How People Answer the Big Questions

Big Questions are questions that matter to all humans. They ask about the nature of the universe and the purpose of human existence. How did the universe begin? Why are we here? How do we decide between right and wrong? Are we alone in the universe? What happens after we die? Religion is one way that people have tried to answer such questions.  Science and philosophy are others.

By expanding upon religious content to include discussions of secular approaches to the Big Questions, educators can ensure that lessons are welcoming to all students. For example, in an elementary-level unit on the origins of the universe, educators can introduce creation stories from diverse religious traditions alongside the Big Bang Theory. Older students can balance research on religious beliefs with an exploration of secular ethical philosophies, like humanism.

2. Highlight Common Values and Morals

It is striking how religions with vastly different origins and practices, from all parts of the world, share many of the same values and morals. For example, several different religious texts contain a variation of The Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity. Tanenbaum has assembled Golden Rules from 12 different religious traditions, including the following:

• Islam: “Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” Fortieth Hadith of an-Nawawi, 13

• Hinduism: “This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” The Mahabharata, 5:1517

• Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien

Other moral principles that are common to many religions include respecting life, helping those in need, forgiving each other and taking care of the earth. These principles can transcend their religious contexts and apply to secular living as well, so highlighting them helps increase the relevance of religious content to unaffiliated students.

3. Make Connections Between Religious and Secular Concepts

Students who do not identify with any religion can still relate to such religious concepts as ritual, symbolism and celebration. Educators can enhance discussions of religious rituals—formal ceremonies or series of acts that are always performed in the same way—with examples of secular rituals, such as graduation ceremonies or athletic events.

When teaching about religious symbolism, such as the meaning of foods served at a Passover Seder (e.g., bitter herbs=the bitterness of slavery) or what the ashes of Ash Wednesday represent (e.g., contrition and humility), educators can promote mutual understanding and include secular literary and metaphysical concepts.

When discussing how students celebrate different holidays, educators can reduce the risk of marginalizing nonreligious students by including secular holidays like Earth Day or Peace Day.

4. Point Out the Diversity Within Diversity

Just as all members of a particular religion do not practice alike, all religiously unaffiliated people do not define their relationship to a deity/deities or to religion in the same way. The Pew study found that 28 percent of unaffiliated Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, and the remainder describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” More than a third of unaffiliated Americans characterize themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious,” and two-thirds say they believe in God.

Tanenbaum refers to differences within a particular group as “diversity within diversity.” By making students aware of this notion, students are less likely to stereotype and make assumptions about their classmates, including religiously unaffiliated ones. For example, religious students might be less inclined to equate the lack of a particular religious identity with the lack of a spiritual or values-based identity.

So the same strategies that foster respect for students of diverse religions can be applied to students without religious affiliation. In short, educators can find common ground to create mutual understanding among students while still acknowledging and honoring the differences that enrich each student’s individual identity.

Additional Resources:

A K-4 lesson plan that helps students explore the Big Questions through the metaphor of a garden

A K-6 lesson plan about being unique and having things in common

A high school curriculum on the Golden Rule from Scarboro Missions

Fasciano is an Education Program Associate at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.