In researching for Global Solution Pittsburgh’s latest teacher workshop “Religion in World History”, I came upon an intriguing article concerning the need for teaching the foundations of world religions within a historical context in public classrooms. Although the article continues on various related subjects, the concept that most attracted my attention was for the importance of teaching world religions in order to better understand global issues. This argument does not concern whether one religion is better than another, but instead argues to promote the teaching of religion in order to provide a rich backdrop to world history as well as to examine its connection to global issues of the present day. Most of all it is a promotion for tolerance. Bias, prejudice, and discrimination are results of a misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about different religions, ideologies, and beliefs. Working to correct these responses and educating about religious beliefs at an early age would allow for the potential of greater comprehension on world issues as well as respect for others.
Education is the first step, and as students grow and progress they are able to use this knowledge outside of the classroom. An opportune example of this is the current Republican primary elections. Even for those who have not been avid followers of the race thus far, it is hard to ignore the role that religion has played in this campaign, in particular Christianity. Christianity has been a large deciding factor for many of the primaries including one of the more recent ones, South Carolina. It continues to be brought up through every debate, news article, and advertisement. In particular the media has also latched onto the idea of a Mormon president, as represented by Mitt Romney, and what that would mean for the future of the country. Without knowing the basis of Mormonism and its vast differences from the mainstream Christian faith, it would be easy to accept the numerous stereotypes about this religion that come with relying only on outside sources. Most associations of Mormonism relate back to the practice of polygamy as well as its other strict rules on diet, dress, and prayer. What most choose to ignore however are the average Americans who practice this religion, including a few friends of my own, and instead focus on extreme cases such as the fundamentalist YFZ Ranch in Texas. By supporting not only civic education in schools, but also promoting an understanding of the historical rise of Mormonism in the United States, students will one day have the opportunity to cast an educated vote no matter the candidate, religion, or political party.
But just as Mormonism is misunderstood today, religious backlash reached an unprecedented level towards American Muslims and the religion of Islam following the September 11th attacks. In spite of the differences between the extreme fundamentalism that the perpetrators practiced and the generally peaceful Islam that most practitioners follow, attacks, discrimination, and stereotyping rose. In addition to the horrific treatment of this population of Americans, the Sikh community, mostly concentrated in California, also suffered under these blunders of discrimination. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion from the Indian subcontinent that advocates peace and equality and is a far cry from any type of fundamentalism. However, whether out of rage, stupidity, or misinformation, discrimination against this community rose after the attacks on 9/11. Many cited, incorrectly, that there was an association between Sikhism and Osama Bin Laden and his followers. The largest source of confusion for most people is the traditional turbans and the practice of not cutting their hair which have nothing to do with terrorism. The lack of awareness and knowledge about this community has led to too many unnecessary crimes of hate: numerous deaths, beatings, and blatant discrimination based solely on looks. For more information on this subject look into this article from ABC News.
These are just two examples of issues and events that occur through religion and religious beliefs. Understanding the basic history, beliefs, and practices of world religions are not only beneficial for general understanding, but can prevent many instances of social injustice not just in the United States but around the world. It is becoming more and more apparent that religion plays a major role in American politics, but also a larger role in diplomacy and war, international development, and for many their everyday lives. The teaching of basic religious ideologies, whether in public, private, or home schools, is imperative not only for working toward global awareness, but also in preventing conflict. Instances of religious based conflict and genocide are all too familiar, such as with the Holocaust, in Bosnia, and in Darfur. But facets of religion are everywhere whether in the jewelry people wear, the holiday decorations that appear every December, or through specific forms of clothing. By creating an understanding of the fundamental practices of world religions, we are able to break down the barriers of difference and embrace diversity. Religion allows us to gain insight into the global issues that afflict our world today through current affairs both nationally and internationally. Through this teaching we are also able to better understand historical references and movements and the part they play in our world today. By handing a generation the right tools, we can create an opportunity for better comprehension of other cultures and societies, as well as a better understanding of our own.