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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences, insights and favorite resources. We will pass them along to other educators!