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Does God Make a Difference?
Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities

by Warren A. Nord
Oxford, 344 pages, $29.95

With regard to religion,” writes Warren Nord, “American education is superficial, illiberal, and unconstitutional . . . . This should be recognized for what it is, a scandal.” From kindergarten through college, public schools do a miserable job of teaching students about religion, if they even make the attempt. They leave most young adults poorly prepared to understand their world.

Nord, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died of leukemia less than two weeks after finalizing the manuscript for this book. He will be missed. Fortunately, he left us this final gift.

The argument of Does God Make a Difference? is straightforward: We need to understand religion to understand our world, and it should, therefore, be an important part of a liberal education. Nord admits to being a political and religious liberal, and in most of the book is careful to make only secular arguments for his positions, bracketing any deep epistemological considerations as would any good Rawlsian liberal.

He offers five reasons religion should have a place in public schools. First, because religion is so influential, those who know nothing about it are ignorant of something important. Second, religion distinguishes alternative conceptions of the good life; a person cannot make an informed choice amongst such alternatives without knowing, rather deeply, about religion. Third, because religion remains influential, one cannot understand or effectively engage in important moral debates without understanding it. Fourth, respect for the political rights of others is grounded most solidly in the profound religious principle that all human beings are equally children of God. Any alternative, secular justification for respecting political rights, such as reciprocity or humanism, is prone to situational ethics that admit of exceptions of convenience. And, fifth, the free exercise clause of the Constitution requires that public education take religion seriously.

While his first four principles make intuitive sense, his reading of the First Amendment requires further explanation. “Students are indoctrinated,” he argues, “when they are systematically and uncritically taught to accept one basic framework for interpreting reality over other major, live alternatives.” Public educators tend to convey purely secular interpretations of reality virtually to the exclusion of religious ones, bringing public education dangerously close to indoctrination. Nord thus turns around the standard objection that teaching religion violates the principle of neutrality by pointing out that a purely secular education is and must be a profoundly illiberal one.

It is illiberal, for example, when nature is studied and religion is not. While science communicates to us the laws of nature, religion addresses the deeper question of “why should nature obey laws at all?” Given the insufficiency of purely nonreligious explanations for our natural world, “schools and universities teach students to accept secular ways of making sense of the world as a matter of faith.”

How did our educational system reach this condition? The development of K“12 curricular standards and the influence of education textbooks shoulder much of the blame. Curricular standards need to be consensual. Important social forces, especially those associated with religion, tend to provoke controversy. Therefore, the content standards and major textbooks that support them largely ignore religion so as not to ruffle feathers. The results are bland and uninspiring curricular standards across the country, in which less than two percent of the content even touches on religion”rendering them “ahistorical, apolitical, and amoral.”

Nord takes great pains to emphasize that he does not advocate public school and college religion teachers stating that a particular religious tradition is true, only that they recognize that our religious traditions largely have made us the people we are. “We take religion seriously in my sense when a course (or the curriculum) takes religious ways of making sense of the world seriously as live options in critical, comparative conversations.”

Here his argument connects with the communitarian idea that humans are largely constitutive selves. He finesses the contradiction between his liberal ends and communitarian means by claiming “this is the conservative agenda of a liberal education. It provides the cultural ballast needed to ground and balance the more liberal or liberating goal of critical thinking that is also essential to a liberal education.”

Far from balkanizing the country, Nord claims, an education that takes religion seriously would actually make it more tolerant. And he is right about this. I and other empirical scholars have found that students who attend private schools, most of which are religious, tend to be more tolerant than otherwise similar students who attend traditional public schools. A religious educational environment appears to be a friend, not an enemy, of liberal toleration.

During my first year on the faculty at Georgetown, in 1998, for example, the facilities staff was prepared to return crucifixes to the walls of classrooms that recently had been renovated at the Jesuit university. Some faculty and students protested that the return of the crucifixes represented an illiberal imposition of the Catholic faith on them, amounting to indoctrination.

The controversy raged until the leaders of the campus Jewish and Muslim student groups publicly announced their support for returning the crosses to the classrooms. These students reasoned that they take their Jewish and Muslim faiths very seriously, and deeply respect other people and institutions that take their own religions seriously. The protesters disbursed and the crucifixes were returned to the classrooms. An element of the Catholic identify of Georgetown University was preserved by the outspoken activism of Jews and Muslims.

Nord’s recommendations of policies to move us from the scandal of religious ignorance to a nation of people tolerant of religion because they deeply understand and appreciate it are divided between entreaties and mandates. He urges public elementary schools to teach students about the major world religions, including their holidays, symbols, and major historical figures and events. He asks school districts to develop clear standards and policies for teaching religion and colleges of education to offer religion minors and electives on teaching religion.

Whenever possible, he insists, religion courses should be delivered from the perspective of the religion’s own sacred documents and adherents. The religions are to be portrayed as similar or different but never as better or worse.

He proposes three policy mandates. First, schools should drop two required high school math courses and require one course on world religions and another on moral and ethical reasoning. Second, all colleges and universities should require a year-long course on religious belief and religions. Finally, any high school or college courses “that deal with morally, philosophically, politically, and religiously controversial material [must] devote 5 percent of textbook space and class time” to the religious perspectives that bear upon them.

Undoubtedly the devil is in the details. Instruction might devolve into proselytizing, but the greater concern is the mandates. When American students are scoring well below the average developed country in math, why throw Algebra II and Trigonometry under the bus? Are high school students really ready for a course on moral reasoning?

We would be better off taking a minimalist approach. My counter-proposal would require only the semester-long high school course on world religions and provide it in place of a social studies course, since religion fits better within that domain. Though I support Nord’s proposal that all colleges have a religion requirement, I would only mandate a one-semester course.

Nord’s 5 percent rule may first appear to be the most controversial and problematic of his concrete proposals. There are, however, clear parallels between the rule for religion and the guidelines that many colleges have adopted regarding incorporating matters of ethnic and racial diversity into the curriculum. Religious belief, unbelief, and specific religious commitments and practices unify us, divide us, and are constitutive of us as much as, if not more than, our race and ethnicity. Surely they deserve at least 5 percent of the time students spend exploring moral controversies in college classrooms.

Infusing American public schools and colleges with an intellectual seriousness about religion that produces liberally educated students without religious indoctrination will be a challenge. Nord makes a convincing argument that it is possible. Sadly, our public education system could not be transformed during Nord’s lifetime. Fortunately, he left us this intriguing blueprint.

Patrick J. Wolf is Endowed Twenty-First Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas.