How Do We Teach Religion in Diverse Societies?

What can we learn about nonreligion by studying religious education?

Religious education in public schools has long been a feature of Christian majority societies. But how does religious education look in societies that have greater religious diversity, as well as a growing nonreligious population? How does the definition of religion education shift in such a context? What values are being promoted in these classes? And what space is given, if any, for nonreligion in these curricula? 

How does the research work?

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This project analyzes religious education in Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and the United Kingdom. As well as considering histories, we are conducting interviews with teachers and professionals who are involved with religious education and analyzing documentation from schools, websites, professional associations, Supreme Court decisions, and even school YouTube videos. The goal is to analyze the similarities and differences in curriculum guidelines (values, pedagogical practices, and content programs), legislation, teacher formation programs, and pedagogical materials.

What are we finding so far?

The decline of Christian hegemony coupled with the expansion of religious diversity and nonreligion is transforming religious education. There are nonetheless still differences between the countries and even within them regarding how religion is taught. In Brazil, for example, Christian institutions have much greater authority in what is taught in religious education in some federative units, whereas in the others religious education takes a more pluralistic approach. In the latter, religious education is guided by an approach that seeks to be explicitly non-proselytizing. To some extent, nonreligion is now covered in religious education, especially in the UK, where there is a move towards teaching “Religion and Worldviews,” including nonreligious worldviews.  

Another significant recent development, especially in Canada and the UK, is the shift to teaching about ethics and values, as well as religion – another way in which religious and nonreligious diversity is implicitly recognized. Both in the formal and informal curricula, values like “respect,” “diversity,” and “human rights” may be emphasized, though there is variation between schools.  

We are investigating whether the goal of religious education has shifted from instructing students about a particular religion, to preparing them as citizens in a diverse society. For example, the Canadian province of Quebec has recently replaced the religious education course with one on culture and citizenship. Thus, religious education continues to be a practice in which the state projects its ideals and values for good citizens. In this project, we see nonreligion in this incorporation of new civic values into the curriculum and the shift away from the teaching of religion articulated as contents of a faith. 

Who is involved?