How Can You Discuss Controversial Subjects In Schools, Like Religion?

I recently published a blog on why religion needs to be discussed respectfully and openly in schools. Now, the question is how (hopefully) this can be done.


People often assume they know what religion is, but in actuality there are many different conceptions and definitions of it. So, to begin the discussion, ask: What is religion? What is it for you? For many, it is a system of beliefs and practices related to sacred things or beings (Emile Durkheim), or the worship of God or a deity. To others, it concerns whatever is the deepest value in your life. The roots go back to a word for obligation or reverence. An older root is religare, re means back, again, anew; ligare (as in ligament) bind or tie. So, religion is to “bind back”. Bind back to what? To God? The universe? Yourself? To purpose or meaning? To full awareness? To your community? How is being religious different from being spiritual, if at all? Is it necessary to have a belief system or a God to be a religion?


What you teach must be adapted to where you teach, who your students are, and who you are. If you are in a community where parents and the school administration would vehemently oppose such discussions, instead of discussing religion, discuss related philosophical and psychological questions that students think are important. My students often chose to discuss why be empathetic or how to live a meaningful life, what love is, and mind.  And, many ethical questions, like: Why is there violence and how should I respond to it? On what basis can I make ethical choices? How do I humanize even those who disagree with me?


Then you need to ask yourself what your intent is in discussing religion. Is it to push a specific belief system? Is it to increase understanding of the diversity of religious or spiritual viewpoints? Is it to help students better understand themselves and their world? Are you committed and open to learning about several religions and studying philosophical methods? What is your story of religion? The first person to question is you. What are your values? Beliefs? Questions? Would you feel comfortable sharing these with students?


If you think you can discuss religion, how do you do it? Since religion is so important in so many people’s lives, you must obviously be sensitive, respectful, open and empathetic. People tend to strike out when their core beliefs are threatened. So you must be strong, ready to protect students, and real. You must model empathy so students can learn to do the same, both to people of different religions or no religion and in the face of new ideas. You need to present ideas and questions, not dictate answers.


What is the history of religion? If you believe the earth and human history begins 6000 years ago with Adam and Eve, maybe the question ends there. But if you think the evidence for the age of the earth being billions of years old is reliable, and that humans evolved into what we are now, this is a very interesting question. You need to discuss what constitutes evidence and what is a theory and a fact versus an opinion. There is evidence that even Neanderthal had some kind of religion. Shamanic, animistic and then polytheistic religions all appeared before monotheistic religion (as we know it). There are myths from around the world–Greek, Norse, African, Japanese, etc. which are filled with religious content and purpose.


So, if cultures throughout history had a religion of some kind, why? Why is religion so ubiquitous? What purposes does it serve? I mentioned in an earlier blog that one answer people give is that religions provide answers, often comforting answers to difficult or uncomfortable questions. I argued that this is a partial answer, at best.


David Loy, a Buddhist philosopher, speaks of two major purposes religion fulfills. The first is that it provides a social canopy. The second is transformation.  We have already begun to describe the social canopy, which many people think is the entirety of religion. Picture a canopy. It shields us. In Loy’s analysis, it consists of the reassuring answers mentioned earlier, ones which tell us what is real or true, now and even beyond death. It tells us how to live, what’s important. Some of my students thought religion was the glue holding a culture together. It ties humans in a community of shared meanings and practices. When social and political institutions fall apart or fail to provide needed support services, religions often step in to fill that need. Of course, many think the religious also have undermined cultural cohesion at times; one recent example is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana and Arkansas. One question to ask and carefully study is: what happens if you are religious and think the canopy is falling or being taken away?


The second purpose is transformation. Transformation might help answer another question about religion: would religion have continued if its only purpose was to provide the social canopy?  All religions that I can think of talk about individuals transformed in some way, by God, grace, insight, a journey, experience or some practice such as a ritual or meditation. There is Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tse, Mirabai, etc. Whether these figures are also God, a prophet, an awakened individual or a saint, they are important or central to a religion. What exactly ‘transformation’ means needs to be analyzed and discussed. It might involve a change of ethical behavior, or how you are with others, your compassion. It might involve understanding or wisdom. It might involve a deepening of awareness or how you experience life. It might involve all three or more. The psychologist Abraham Maslow called it “self-actualization,” Carl Jung “individuation.” It can involve learning how to end suffering. A big question is: can the social canopy interfere with transformation?


I recommend studying the science of empathy and compassion. Discuss what thinking means and how to do it clearly and critically. How do you know what’s right to do and true? You might discuss the various meanings of logos and mythos. You might discuss framing metaphors, and the role of stories in thinking. What is the role of doubt and questioning, as well as revelation, belief and faith? What do these all mean? Carefully differentiate self-doubt, or doubt in your ability to think, from having faith in yourself to doubt, question, analyze, and empathize with other people’s answers as well as your own.


Here are a few of the books I have used. I have left out books that are fabulous but speak of only one religion. Always try to provide different viewpoints on each topic or question you discuss. I would suggest reading select chapters from the following.

Karen Armstrong’s books, particularly The Case for God. This is a profound book about God and religion, in the past as well as in today’s world. It has insightful analyses of faith and belief and how our understanding of these has changed over time.

Philosopher Philip Novak wrote The World’s Wisdom, a collection of short excerpts from the spiritual writings of many religions.

Huston Smith, The World’s Religions provides a comparison of religious doctrines, philosophy, history and practices. Although students find it a bit dry, it is a great resource and has been used for decades in comparative religion classes.

Ken Wilber’s exciting synthesis, No Boundary, explores both a philosophical and psychological analysis of religious experience.


To provide artistic and emotional insight and some fun, and to stimulate students to come up with their own syntheses, add books such as:

Roger Housden’s collection: Risking Everything: 110 Poems of Love and Revelation.

Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield’s collection: Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from Around the World.


**Photo: Goreme Open Air Museum, Turkey. Church carved into rock.

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