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A Message from Our 2016 Adam Solomon Award Winner

Chris Murray

Chris Murray

This June, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) will be leading a historic new course on religious literacy education in our public schools. Thirty-five teachers will spend 45 hours touring, learning, discussing, and creating lessons that will increase teachers’ religious literacy and confidence in teaching about religion in public schools. Amid recent reports of increased bullying targeting schoolchildren from religious minorities, conference participants will investigate methods of effectively training students to analyze the role of religion in American public life.

The MCPS-developed course, Religious Literacy for Educators, will allow teachers from across the district to meet one another and learn from some of the nation’s finest religious studies scholars. Beginning June 27, the course will feature introductions from experts on Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, as well as four site visits to places of worship. Teachers will also hear from Montgomery County and national leaders about the importance of having a more religiously literate community. The course has already received approval from both the County and the State and allows teachers to receive three credits for salary advancement.

If you are interested in learning more about creating a similar course or sharing ideas please feel free to contact myself or Ben Marcus, who in April, helped create at Prospect High School (outside Chicago) a conference on religious literacy education in public secondary schools with teachers, administrators, professors, and consultants from around the country. The conference connected these different constituencies to facilitate the development and implementation of constitutionally appropriate, robust lessons for teaching about religion. Participants were able to participate in groundbreaking model lesson plans created by local teachers John Camardella and Seth Brady, both of whom have received statewide recognition and awards for excellence in teaching.

Chris Murray
Walter Johnson High School, MCPS
Christopher.murray@walter.johnson.com

Benjamin Marcus
Newseum Institute
bmarcus@newseum.org

Promoting Religious Literacy and Respect for Differences: A Teacher’s Recommendations

An Interview with Chris Murray by Tanenbaum’s Kim Keiserman, Education Program Associate

In today’s multicultural, interconnected world, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of teaching about religious and cultural diversity.  But many teachers express reluctance to address these topics in the classroom, fearing that they may stumble into controversy.

Chris Murray is an educator who is committed to expanding his students’ knowledge of religion and religious diversity.  As a social studies teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, he has taught World History for 11 years and an elective course in World Religions for six years.  This year, Chris began planning a week-long, 45-hour course to train other teachers to address religion as part of their curriculum.  The course will be offered to 30 educators in June 2016.

I spoke with Chris in November to find out what motivates him to teach about religion, how he approaches this complex and important subject, and what advice he has for other educators.

KK: How did you become interested in teaching World Religions?   

Chris Murray

Chris Murray, Educator

CM: I first became interested in teaching the course because of my personal interest in religion and its role in history.  I was able touch upon religion in my World History class, but I wanted to spend more time on it–and learn more about it myself.  Once I started teaching the course, I was taken aback by my students’ lack of religious literacy—although they actually scored a bit higher than the national average on the Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge Quiz.  I realized that most students had never had a conversation about religion with someone from a faith other than their own.  I wanted to change that.

KK: Briefly describe the content of the course.  What religions do you cover?

CM: When I first started the course, I took a geographical approach.  I started with South Asia and covered Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.  Then I moved on to East Asia and covered Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism.  I ended the course with religions that originated in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i.  Over time, though, I focused less on history and more on the role religion plays in the 21st century.  I try to increase students’ religious literacy by bringing in polls [about current-day religious attitudes] from the Pew Research Center and arranging Skype calls with experts like Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center.

KK: What are your major objectives?

CM: I want students to not only gain a basic understanding of the major world religions, but also to be able to identify misconceptions about them and understand why these misconceptions persist.

KK: What resources do you recommend for other educators?

CM: Tanenbaum’s Seven Principles for Inclusive Education provide a framework for my teaching.  I don’t try to portray myself as an expert; instead I reach out to well-respected scholars within the major world religions.  I try to tap into the great expertise that is available out there.  When I am teaching about Hinduism, for instance, I use resources from the Hindu American Foundation.  When teaching about Sikhism, I go to the Kaur Foundation and the Sikh Campaign.  For Islam I have found good resources at the ACMCU Workshops and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

Regardless of the subject area, I think it’s important for teachers to be honest about what they don’t know and willing to seek out great resources.  Right now, I am focused on getting conversations going through Face to Faith [an international video conferencing program that allows students to engage in cross-cultural, interfaith dialogue.]

KK: How do you handle incidents of violence in the name of religion such as the recent attacks carried out by ISIS in Paris?

CM: I want my students to feel safe bringing up questions about religion and extremism.  I want them to be able to express their own misconceptions without being labeled.  With regard to terrorist attacks such as those committed by ISIS, my approach is to help students differentiate between Islam and violent extremism.  My goal is to help them dissect these events and break them down into understandable pieces.  In any discussion of religious extremism, I think it’s important to expose students to the work of religious scholars rather than the rhetoric of politicians.

KK:  How would you handle parental complaints if you ever encountered them? 

CM: I would feel comfortable knowing that I am teaching about religion from an academic perspective, which is not only constitutional, but encouraged by state standards.  I would be able to stand my ground because I have the support of my administration and district.

KK: What would you say to parents in Tennessee, Georgia and elsewhere who have expressed concerns about their children learning about Islam?

CM: I would try to show that I understand the basis of their fears.  I would respond by demonstrating the intention of the course: Building students’ knowledge and understanding of the people in their own communities.  I have taught World Religions to 1,000 or so students, and I have never had one come to me and say that he or she has changed his or her faith due to learning about other faiths.

KK: What is the most important thing for other educators to know about this work? 

CM: First, it’s constitutional [to teach about religion.]  Second, you don’t have to be an expert, as long as you take advantage of the great resources that are out there.  Third, it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you’re continually reflecting and open to change.  For example, as I have learned more about Hinduism, I realize that some of my early teaching on the subject was inaccurate.  My teaching of Hinduism has evolved over time.  Finally, I would emphasize the importance of the subject matter.  We live in a world in which people are affected by religion.  Being knowledgeable about religion is not about personal spiritual growth; it’s about being a good global citizen.


 

We hope this will be the first in a series of interviews with educators who are committed to promoting religious literacy and respect for differences.  Are you a teacher who is working to incorporate lessons about religion and religious diversity into your curriculum?  Contact us at education@tanenbaum.org to share your experiences, insights and favorite resources.  We will pass them along to other educators!

Calls for Gun Control in Wake of Colorado Shooting: News Roundup

In the news this week:  Religious leaders call for gun control, “Nones” on the rise, Bachmann and Co.  under fire for statements about American Muslims, and other stories.

President Obama and his likely GOP challenger Mitt Romney called for prayers and reflection after a deadly shooting at a Colorado movie theater, while liberal religious leaders called for stricter gun control laws.
 
Religious leaders urged wounded victims and relatives of the deceased to put their faith in a higher power. “As Catholic bishops, we ‘weep with those who weep,’ said Archbishop Samuel Aquila and Auxiliary Bishop James Conley of Denver, citing, like Romney, the Apostle Paul.
 
“But in Aurora, which means ‘the dawn, the sun rose this morning,” the bishops continued. “In a city whose name evokes the light, people of hope know that the darkness may be overcome.”
 
The Catholic bishops also prayed for the perpetrator of the shooting, and for his conversion. “Evil ruled his heart last night,” said Aquila and Conley in a statement. “Only Jesus Christ can overcome the darkness of such evil.” Other religious leaders argued that the U.S. needs tougher gun control laws. Washington Post
 
Unbelief is on the uptick. People who check "None" for their religious affiliation are now nearly one in five Americans (19%), the highest ever documented, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press.
 
The rapid rise of Nones — including atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe "nothing in particular" — defies the usually glacial rate of change in spiritual identity.
 
Barry Kosmin, co-author of three American Religious Identification Surveys, theorizes why None has become the "default category." He says, "Young people are resistant to the authority of institutional religion, older people are turned off by the politicization of religion, and people are simply less into theology than ever before." USA Today
 
Forty-two religious and secular organizations united on Thursday in condemning conservative lawmakers' allegations that Muslim-American individuals connected to the U.S. government may be trying to spread the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
 
They directed their criticisms at Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Thomas Rooney (R-Fla.) and Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), who recently wrote to various government agencies and asked them to investigate the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. In their letters, the lawmakers targeted top State Department official Huma Abedin and several advisers to the Department of Homeland Security.
 
"[W]e write to raise our voices in protest of your recent letters regarding prominent American Muslim individuals and organizations," the 42 organizations wrote in a letter to the lawmakers on Thursday. "These letters question the loyalty of faithful Americans based on nothing more than their religious affiliations and what is at best tenuous evidence of their associations. As such, your actions have serious implications for religious freedom and the health of our democracy." Huffington Post
 
Voters want their leaders to have a firm rooting in religious morals but they don’t care if that religion is Mormonism or Christianity, according to findings released Thursday from a recent poll of voters around the country.
 
Being Muslim, on the other hand, creates discomfort for about a fifth of registered voters, according to a national survey conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
 
Among nearly 2,400 registered voters polled for the survey, 60 percent of voters know that Mitt Romney is Mormon. Of the ones who do, four out of five are either okay with it or say they don’t care, according to a news release about the survey.
 
Meanwhile, the country remains divided on President Obama’s religious affiliation. A full 17 percent of people polled believe the president is Muslim; about half say he is Christian; and nearly one-third say they don’t know. Washington Post
 
For the second time in less than a year, the Gallup poll reports that a majority of Americans would vote for an atheist for president.
The latest survey, from June, found that 54 percent of those asked said they would vote a "well- qualified" atheist into the Oval Office— the highest percentage since Gallup began asking the question in 1958, when only 18 percent said they would back a nonbeliever.
 
On the other hand, the survey showed that those who do not believe in God still come in behind every other group polled for, including gays and lesbians (68 percent) and Muslims (58 percent).
 
Still, an imaginary atheist candidate passed the 50 percent threshold for the first time when Gallup asked the question in August 2011, so the trend is upward. USA Today