A group of teenagers gathered in Ahwatukee Foothills one recent Monday afternoon to discuss the Jewish faith. But they got a little hung up on the concept of the Sabbath as a day of rest.
“You’re not allowed to drive? So you have to walk everywhere?”
“Can you take a bus? Can you ride a horse?”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to spend the Sabbath worrying about how to get around the rules.”
Fasting caused more head-scratching.
“I had a friend from Turkey who said when you’re fasting, you can’t even swallow your spit.”
“That doesn’t make sense. How do you even do that?”
“What if you die?”
Questions about religion and faith are not unusual among young people. But this conversation was different because it was part of a religion class taught in a public school.
Mountain Pointe High School social studies teacher Marissa Chavez spends much of her World Religion class dispelling myths and explaining the most basic elements of the major faiths — and she couldn’t be happier about doing it. She proposed this class to the Tempe Union High School District governing board last year because she saw a need for students to be better informed about religion, particularly with regard to world events such as the war in Iraq.
This is the first year Mountain Pointe offered a World Religion elective, open to any student at the school. It’s the only course in the East Valley focused on teaching public school students about religion.
While it’s an exception here, offering religion classes to high school students is a growing trend in the U.S., said Charles Haynes, senior scholar for the Nashville-based First Amendment Center, and world religion is one of the most popular courses.
“Because it’s an elective, it’s less likely to be a lightning rod,” he said. A full-blown survey of various religions is also less controversial because it is all-inclusive.
Twenty years ago, Haynes said, there was little to no mention of religion in the core curriculums of public schools.
“You could go through an entire textbook with no mention of religion. Today, it’s dramatically different. It’s in the history standards.”
Curriculum directors from around the East Valley confirmed that world religion topics are a regular part of world history courses.
Still, when Chavez proposed her class, she said many people warned her against it.
“They said, ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,’” she said. But, so far, she has had no complaints and Desert Vista High School is planning to offer the class in the spring.
There are no national statistics on how many public high schools offer religion courses, but in Fairfax, Va., where Haynes resides, there are 12 different offerings and he’s aware of other classes in surrounding areas. He thinks the courses are generally more prevalent in the east and also correlate to areas where there is religious diversity.
Only one school district in the U.S. requires students to study religion. For eight years, the school district in Modesto, Calif., called the “Bible Belt of California,” has required all ninth-graders to take a world religion course.
Parents and community members often express concerns where religion is taught in school because they fear their children’s own faith will be shaken. But Haynes said a study of the course in Modesto proves otherwise, showing that students who went in with one faith came out with the same faith. The study also showed learning about religion strengthened students’ support of First Amendment rights of others.
But schools can get in trouble when a teacher “pushes” one religion over another in class or when the teacher includes material that could be considered devotional.
“A teacher cannot say, ‘let’s open the Bible and hear the word of God.’ That’s not constitutional,” Haynes said. It is perfectly acceptable, however, to read excerpts from the Bible in an effort to understand why Christians believe what they do.
In Chavez’s class, students often read from various scriptures. She said it was difficult to find textbooks that didn’t preach one point of view, but she’s been able to piece together materials from many sources, including books, the Internet and movies. She creates presentations for each religion, and relies on questions to guide the discussion.
Emma Burr, 18, signed up for the class because of an interest in religion that likely stemmed from her mother’s exploration of Eastern mysticism. She said she’s glad she chose world religion because discussions keep things interesting.
“Everyone in the room is either Christian, atheist or agnostic,” Burr said. “We don’t have a lot of first-hand experience with other religions, but we can put our heads together and figure it out. A lot of our questions go unanswered, but that’s OK. We’re all learning together.”
Offering world religion instruction is not just an education issue, Haynes said.
There’s a civic argument that can be made for it.
“Ignorance is the root of so much intolerance. So many Americans know so little about religion,” he said. “It’s not just important to understanding world events, but for living with each other in this country.”
David Perry, 18, said one of his best friends is Hindu, and learning about his beliefs made him want to learn about philosophies and faiths different from his own. That’s why he’s taking the world religion class.
“I’ve learned there are as many people as there are religions, with all the different sects that exist,” he said.
Arizona State University professor Charles Barfoot, who studies the sociology of religion, says students taking classes like Chavez’s are getting a head start on college and life beyond school.
The Phoenix area, he said, is becoming more religiously diverse, but many students who take his introductory world religion course are hearing about these different faiths for the first time.
“In these classes, they are discovering something new that might be contrary to the myths and stereotypes they believe. They often say, ‘my eyes were opened.’”
Ashley Dawson, 18, comes from a strict Christian family and enrolled in the class at Mountain Pointe because she wanted to learn about beliefs different from what she grew up with. She said she can’t believe how unaware she was.
“I was confused about religion,” she said. “I wanted to learn about different religions and see what made sense to me, logically.”