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Teaching About Religion in World History

by Jennifer Norton

Background on Teaching About Religion
New Trends
Educational Value
Challenges of Teaching About Religion in World History Classes
Lesson Plans with Sensitivity and Empathy
Respectful Activities
Accuracy and Empathy—Terminology

[I]t might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.
    Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark Abington Township School District v. Schemp (1963)


The Supreme Court "school prayer" decisions of the 1960s, including the above quoted Schemp decision, profoundly affected American education. Among the most controversial and widely misunderstood decisions in the history of the Supreme Court, they were meant to clarify and enforce the First Amendment clause on religious liberty prohibiting the establishment of religion by the government or its agents—in this case public schools—by proscribing school- or teacher-led prayer or devotional scripture readings in the public schools.

As Justice Clark's quote clearly demonstrates, the Supreme Court did not intend the decisions to proscribe teaching about religion, but unfortunately, this was the outcome in most public school curricula for the next twenty-five years. While the Supreme Court justices attempted to identify those areas where teaching about religion was constitutionally permissible and appropriate, deep uncertainty about the entire issue led most teachers, administrators, and textbook publishers to err on the side of caution and abandon religious content almost completely.


Since the 1970s, however, increasing attention has been paid to the role of religion in public education. The "religion-free zone" model of public education, considered neutral and "safe" by some, is increasingly viewed as hostile to religious perspectives by many parents and community members. The reopening of the discussion on the appropriate role of religion in public education has resulted in an emerging consensus among educators, faith communities, and political leaders and is summed up in the following quote:

Public schools may not inculcate nor inhibit religion. They must be places where religion and religious conviction are treated with fairness and respect. Public schools uphold the First Amendment when they protect the religious liberty rights of students of all faiths or none. Schools demonstrate fairness when they ensure that the curriculum includes study about religion, where appropriate, as an important part of a complete education.
    "Religious Liberty, Public Education and the Future of American Democracy, Principle IV"

This quote can be found on the first page of A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools, published by the First Amendment Center and included with four other religious liberty guidelines in a U.S. Department of Education mailing to all public schools in December 1999.


It is clear that the teaching about religion in the world history classroom is both constitutionally acceptable and educationally sound. Even a brief look at recently published world history textbooks indicates how seriously textbook publishers now take their responsibility to address religion in the history classroom. Religious scholars are extensively consulted as contributors and content reviewers. Themes such as Religions and Value Systems or Diversity speak to the need for today's students to understand perspectives and beliefs that differ from their own.

Familiarity with world religious beliefs and traditions enhances students' understanding of literature, art, architecture, culture, and history. In addition, educators today acknowledge that an understanding of the histories and belief systems of a diversity of religious traditions is vital and necessary if students are to grasp the complexity of contemporary issues such as the conflicts in the Middle East, the unrest in Afghanistan, the troubles in Northern Ireland, and the continuing struggles in the Balkans. Studying the role of religion in history helps students learn to value religious liberty and respect cultural diversity, important criteria in maintaining democracy and world peace.


The world history teacher, then, is faced with four challenging mandates:

  • Pedagogy: Understanding what is constitutionally permissible and developing strategies for dealing with religious content in the curriculum in ways that are educationally sound, fair, neutral, objective, and sensitive.
  • Content: Obtaining accurate knowledge of the various faiths and their traditions covered by the curriculum, to ensure a fair and sensitive treatment in classroom lessons.
  • Climate: Creating a classroom climate that is conducive to a respectful discussion of other people's beliefs.
  • Communication: Avoiding controversy and mistrust by communicating with administrators and parents about course content and classroom parameters when dealing with religion in the curriculum.

1. Pedagogy: Fairness, Neutrality, and Objectivity

  • The school's approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school strives for student awareness of religions, but does not press for student acceptance of any religion.
  • The school sponsors study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school educates about all religions; it does not promote or denigrate religion.
  • The school informs students about various beliefs; it does not seek to conform students to any particular belief.

    A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools [page 3]

This is the essence of teaching about religion, as opposed to the teaching of religion. Teachers must be especially careful not to appear to be taking a position of advocacy in regard to any one religion.

An excellent way to ensure this is to always teach by attribution when discussing religion. "According to the Quran…" or "Many Buddhists believe…" or "Early Christians taught that Jesus was the son of God. … "Using such attributions for religious content is an important element in ensuring that the teaching about religion is fair and neutral.

2. Content: Content Knowledge and Factual Accuracy

The content knowledge required of a high school world history teacher is vast. The emphasis in most undergraduate social studies curricula is on the political, economic, military, and social history. The likelihood that a credentialed high-school teacher possesses broad and detailed knowledge of world religions is slight. Yet, the high-school world history teacher may be expected to cover the history and belief systems of Judaism, Christianity (pre- and post-Reformation), Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism!

Here are some suggestions for handling that task:

  • Try to increase your knowledge by taking courses at local colleges, attending conferences and workshops, reading supplemental materials—especially primary sources—and using online resources.
  • Recognize and admit your limited knowledge in certain areas. Disclaimers are important, especially when you have students of that faith community in your classroom.
  • Use primary source materials whenever possible. Familiarize yourself with the sacred texts of the major religions, and select passages for students to read and discuss. There are many excellent selections from Genesis and the Christian Gospels, the Rig Veda, the Ramayana, the Upanishads, and the Quran, Martin Luther, the Council of Trent, and many others which help students understand different viewpoints.
  • There are some excellent Web sites for primary source material that is ideally suited to the high-school world history teacher. Probably the best and most complete are the various history sourcebooks put together by Paul Halsall at Fordham University. All the sourcebooks can be accessed from the Internet History Sourcebooks Project.
  • Know the sociocultural background of the student population served by your school district. It may prove important to obtain more accurate and in-depth knowledge of those religious traditions represented in your classroom.
  • Avoid comparing religions in ways that lead students to classify them as being superior or inferior to one anther. Similarities and differences in doctrine and practice must be pointed out carefully.

Can you spot the inaccuracies in the following statements? *

  • "Jews living in Israel in the time of Christ believed that the Old Testament contained the law of God."
  • "Mohammedans accept the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and they also have their own scripture, the Quran, written by the prophet Mohammed. Jews, Christians, and Islams have the same God and are all required to live a life pleasing to God. All of these faiths are really paths to the same truth. The important thing is not which group you belong to, but the kind of life you lead."
  • "The people of India are Hindus. They are polytheist because they believe in many different gods."

*See explanations at the end of the next section

3. Climate: Creating a Respectful Classroom Climate

It is very important to create a classroom environment that is receptive to the examination and discussion of unfamiliar religions. Students must have clear guidelines about appropriate behavior, language, and responses when the topic is religion in world history.

Fortunately, the groundwork for this type of classroom environment can be laid successfully in one or two class periods. Students should be apprised of the course content early in the school year and be made aware that certain topics to be covered throughout the year are sensitive. Explain that the goal of examining such topics is to help students become better citizens in a diverse nation and world. Expectations should be supported with the creation of a classroom contract or charter that ensures that students accept the process.

A Classroom Charter: The classroom charter is an agreement created by the entire class on the basis of the concepts of rights, responsibilities and respect.This is best undertaken at the beginning of the school year, but it can actually be implemented anytime.

Have students list all the annoying behaviors that they have experienced in classroom settings, from other students and teachers too. The behaviors will fall into three broad categories:

  • Physically intrusive actions (pushing, tripping, etc.)
  • Verbally annoying behaviors (interrupting, being a know-it-all)
  • Verbally hurtful behaviors (pejoratives, put-downs, etc.)

Engage in a short discussion about the fact that these are disrespectful actions and words that have no place in a classroom. Guide the discussion to emphasie three main ideas:

  • Students have the right to learn in a respectful environment.
  • Teachers have the right to teach in a respectful environment.
  • Each person in the class is responsible for ensuring that his or her own and others' rights are being respected.

The agreement can be called a contract, charter, code of conduct, compact, declaration, or other term. Print out a copy, have each student sign it as a guarantee of his or her agreement and adherence, and post it in the classroom. Make copies to send home for parents to read and sign. Throughout the school year, as incidents arise, remind students of their agreement to treat others and their beliefs with respect.

4. Communication: The Parent Connection

Parents have a right to know what their children are being taught. To earn the trust of the parent community, world history teachers should explain, either during back-to-school night or in a letter home, what the course syllabus entails, including examination of the world's religions. If parents trust that this is being done in a constitutionally sound way, that their child is not being subjected to proselytizing or misrepresentation of their religious traditions, the world history teacher should be able to avoid conflict and confrontation. Good communication with parents is the critical element in establishing and maintaining trust.

Of course, parents who object to certain aspects of the curriculum have the right to excuse their child from those parts of the class they feel are inimical to their own values or teachings.


Dealing with religious content in the world history classroom needs special sensitivity on the part of the teacher. Teachers should seek to understand the points of view of different religions from within their own historical contexts. Empathy helps the teacher understand why a certain view is held and why it is valuable to the adherent to the religion. Seek to help students gain this same type of empathy when they are studying unfamiliar faiths.

Avoiding Pitfalls

Many activities that you might employ to engage student interest and participation in other curricular areas may not be appropriate when dealing with the faiths of others. Following are several case studies illustrating issues in world history classrooms:

  • As an active-learning project in a tenth grade world studies class, students learn about Judaism, Passover, and the Seder. Parents of Jewish students offer to help the class reenact a Seder, teaching the prayers, songs, and meanings of all parts of the meal and how these prayers relate to events of the Hebrew exodus from captivity in ancient Egypt.
  • A high-school world history teacher wants his class to understand the importance of prayer to Muslims the world over. He asks students to bring in small rugs, calculates the direction of Mecca, and with a recorded Arabic accompaniment, asks his students to simulate the ritual of daily prayer.
    It is never appropriate to role play the sacred events of any faith's traditions. Role playing a Jewish Seder, Buddhist meditation, Muslim daily prayers, or similar activities risks offending both the consciences of the student participants and the adherents to the faith. Even if a parent or student offers to demonstrate or lead such an activity, it should be avoided. Just as most teachers would recognize the inappropriateness of reenacting a Catholic Mass or the sacrament of Holy Communion in their classrooms, so the reenactment of other faiths' sacred events is inappropriate.
  • A local Episcopalian minister is invited by a world history teacher to teach a lesson on the Reformation. The teacher also plans to have a few other local religious leaders as guest speakers about other world history topics. The principal expresses concern that this might violate the First Amendment.
    Teachers often invite guest speakers to give students a more comprehensive presentation or a unique perspective on a particular subject under study. When dealing with religion, however, teachers must choose speakers with special care. Of course the school and district policies regarding outside speakers must be adhered to. In addition, the speaker must be able to give a presentation that is academic, not devotional. Faculty from local colleges and universities are good resources. Community religious leaders may be acceptable as long as they understand clearly that their job is to educate, not inculcate; their job is to inform, not to advocate or preach.
  • A tenth grade world history class is doing a unit on India. The teacher is not very knowledgeable about Sikhism, but there is a Sikh boy in her class. Concerned about her lack of knowledge, and fearful that she will inadvertently say something inaccurate or offensive, she calls upon him to explain the history and beliefs of Sikhism to the rest of the class.
    It is intrusive to poll or question students about their beliefs, but sometimes they are obvious to a teacher through dress, diet, or other behavior dictated by religious beliefs. Be very careful about asking students to explain their religious doctrines, practices, or beliefs, however. Not only may this make them uncomfortable, but also students' knowledge may be inaccurate or incomplete, or they may use the opportunity to proselytize rather than to inform.


Teachers concerned about inadvertently offending believers in their classrooms may find response journals to be a useful tool for communicating individually with students. Just as teachers may fear accidentally saying the wrong thing, students may be acculturated to avoid correcting an instructor or may just be too inhibited to do so in a classroom discussion. Response journals allow students to express privately and in writing any concerns they have with lesson content.

Another technique for eliciting student responses when their faith is being discussed in a world history lesson is to have them write a response to or critique of the textbook version of their religion. Ask students to read the textbook description of their religion and assess whether they feel it is an accurate and complete account of their faith. Students might also include any other information that they think classmates should know about their religion's history or doctrines. Always be aware of the possibility of limitations of students' knowledge of their own religions. They have learned about them in devotional, not academic, settings. Still, this technique helps teachers gauge how much their students know about the various faiths covered in the curriculum.


When discussing a sensitive topic such as religion in a world history classroom, words do count! One of the best ways to help students develop the kind of empathy that allows them to understand differing points of view is to model accuracy and empathy when discussing others' faiths. Here are some examples:

  • B.C./A.D. vs. B.C.E./C.E.
    Whatever the designations used in the classroom text, it is useful to introduce world history students to the various ways of referring to the passage of time. Most students don't know that A.D. means Anno Domini, a Latin phrase meaning "In the year of our Lord." For the many people in the world today who do not revere Jesus as "Our Lord," this way of referencing time is somewhat meaningless. The more neutral, and to many, less offensive way of labeling time is C.E., or Common Era, and B.C.E., or Before Common Era. Of course this discussion also allows the world history teacher to discuss the calendars of the Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, and Jews, all referenced to events significant to their history, culture, and religion.

  • Old Testament and New Testament
    What is commonly referred to as the Old Testament is, of course, the Hebrew Scriptures because for Jews there is no New Testament. Many Jews prefer these books of the Bible to be called the Hebrew Scriptures, feeling that the labels "old" and "new" are unnecessarily value laden.

    An interesting exercise to help students grasp the Jewish perspective on this issue is to brainstorm a list of the various ways to refer to two consecutive things, for example, First/Second, Primary/Secondary, Alpha/Beta, Number One/Number Two. This helps students to see that there are definite connotations depending on the pair of words chosen. Do the titles First Testament and Second Testament have different connotations from Old Testament and New Testament?

  • Jesus and Mohammed
    The example above, "Jews living in Israel in the time of Christ…" refers to the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth in a devotional way as "Christ". Teachers should be very careful not to refer to religious figures with their sacred titles. Instead, use attribution, such as "Christians believed that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah. …"

    Additionally, world history teachers must be careful when discussing Islam to use the correct terminology. Students should be corrected if they refer to adherents as "Islams" or "Mohammedans." Mohammed is considered the last and greatest prophet but is not deified or worshiped by Muslims, so the term "Mohammedans" is inaccurate and offensive to them. Similarly, Mohammed did not write the Quran, and, although Muslims acknowledge many of the prophets in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it would be inaccurate to say that they accept the Old and New Testaments.


Try to avoid oversimplifying any country's religious history or any religion's doctrine. India, for example, is an incredibly diverse nation with a majority of Hindus but significant minorities practicing other religions such as Islam, Sikhism, Parsee, Jainism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Anglicanism. Hinduism itself is an extremely complex religious belief system that is very difficult to classify. It is inaccurate to characterize it as a polytheistic religion, because the concepts of Brahmanism contradicts this oversimplification.

Finally, be very careful when discussing the similarities and differences of faiths. There is always the danger sounding relativistic to students. To the faithful of every religious tradition, the differences of beliefs are important, and many believers would argue vehemently that all faiths are not really paths to the same truth!


Teaching about religion in a constitutionally and educationally sound way can sometimes feel like an overwhelming burden to a world history teacher. It may seem easier or less controversial to just "skip over those parts." To do so, however, greatly diminishes students' appreciation of the richness of human history and their understanding of the role religion has played and continues to play in human interactions, both good and bad.

Taking on the challenge of teaching about religion objectively and sensitively yields tremendous benefits for students. It helps students understand and value the diversity of the human experience. It also models for students the ability to accommodate a variety of beliefs and viewpoints in a democratic society. Students may develop a greater appreciation of the guarantees of religious liberty that they enjoy as American citizens, and their educational experience will be a brighter and more vibrant tapestry due to your efforts.


Elwood, Robert S., Jr. Words of the World's Religions: An Anthropology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1977.

Fisher, Mary Pat and Robert Luyster. Living Religions. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991

Haynes, Charles C. A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.


Internet History Sourcebooks Project
List of primary source materials

Academic Information on Religion
Lists of sites for information about various religions

The Pluralism Project
Multiple resources of information about religions