Kids today are denied a real chance to learn more about the world in which they live - a world that, because of air travel, the internet and immigration patterns is staring them in the face every time they look around their classrooms. To a large degree this is because anything involving religion is banned.
Religion, faith, belief – whatever label one cares to stick on it – shapes cultures (Islam v. the West.) It infuses politics (the Christian right in the U.S.) . It starts wars (the Crusades.) It sets the foundation of acceptable behavior in societies (the Ten commandments and Judeo/Christian ethics.) Understanding religions and their impact on world history deepens knowledge and helps people understand each other.
There is a wide gap between learning about religions and becoming religious. But too many people make the words synonymous. Reading the Q’ran to learn more about the basic tenets of the Muslim faith is no more likely to prompt a conversion than is reading the bible – either or both books. Jews who fled persecution and settled in the Ottoman Empire found a haven in the heart of Islam but didn’t necessarily embrace the religion espoused by almost everyone else they met on a daily basis. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew and spoke Aramaic. Today, most people named Jesus are Roman Catholic and speak Spanish.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution bans the establishment of a state religion. But state religions exist all over the world, including in such democracies as Germany, the UK and Denmark. None of these countries block the study of the impact of religion on the world except the U.S., where some public schools go so far as to bar copies of the Declaration of Independence because it references God.
Public school students usually receive only the barest smattering of instruction on world religions before they enter college where even taxpayer-funded schools can offer courses and majors in comparative religion.
Denying younger students the opportunity to learn about the role of religion in life and history - both positive and negative - sets them back as they confront an increasingly mobile and multicultural society. If colleges and universities can teach about religion without trying to inculcate a particular creed, then surely public schools can, too.