How does education about religion work in US schools?
July 19, 2008 12:49 PM   Subscribe

Someone told me that in the US most public schools don't have religious studies or comparative religion type classes. Is this true?

If this is true, how far does it go? Does that mean there's no (Greek/Roman/Norse) mythology either? And what would be the rationale behind not teaching it?
posted by bjrn to Education (53 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Based on my own limited anecdotal experience, the answer is yes.
posted by Autarky at 12:54 PM on July 19, 2008

Another data point: My public school in Alabama did not offer any.

Rationale: Separation of Church and State is a big deal here, so if you did teach one kind of religion class you probably have to offer all of them for equal coverage. A comparative religion class would be a political-correctness nightmare here. Plus, we tend to leave those kinds of specific courses for college where you have more choice of classes and more elective credits.

Besides, what would be the rationale FOR teaching it? Why do students need Mythology classes to the exclusion of other types?
posted by parkerjackson at 12:57 PM on July 19, 2008

And what would be the rationale behind not teaching it?

Amendment I: Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or preventing free exercise thereof...

When it comes to primary or secondary school, the entire subject of religion is kryptonite as of a series of important court decisions from about 50 years ago.
posted by Class Goat at 12:58 PM on July 19, 2008

My public high school (in Littleton, CO, in the mid-1980s) had some classes like this (mythology, comparative religions/philosophy, etc.), but they were electives, not part of the standard curriculum.
posted by scody at 12:59 PM on July 19, 2008

Classical literature, including mythology, is often covered in a high-school English (literature) class. Some schools cover the Bible as literature in a similar way. Some schools offer, as an elective, a comparative religion course -- in my experience, this would be the exception rather than the rule.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2008

Public schools focus on the basics: science, math, some literature. This is true across the board though in some communities there is a collection of magnet schools, arts schools, and a scattering of "advanced placement" studies where pupils can study classical liberal arts type material.

The rational for not teaching such advanced subjects is multifaceted, but from a purely metric level, teaching such subjects requires a level of specialization not found in public schools here.

Teachers in our country are not educators in the traditional sense but rather classroom administrators. Teacher training is not subject specific, but rather focused on working within the school as a team member with the goal of passing as many students as possible.

Further, such topics are themselves interpretative and sometimes subjective. How then do you measure a pupil's education attainment in a subject where there are no right or wrong answers that can be distilled into a multiple choice standardized test?

If this seems backwards and counter productive, it's because it is.
posted by wfrgms at 1:00 PM on July 19, 2008 [6 favorites]

In my area, religion is absolutely not taught in public schools, but is available as optional courses when you go to university. Mythology is taught, as part of the social studies classes when you are young, the reading classes when you are of middle-school age, and literature classes when you are in high school. Although, I mostly remember Greek and Roman mythology, and do not remember ever studying Norse mythology until I attended university.

There have been attempts recently to begin teaching religion in public schools, but this is general chaotic and seen as unconstitutional because it is not comparative religion classes that are wanted, and it's very difficult to get agreement on the basics of a religion course using tax dollars to teach people with a broad range of beliefs, and without breaking our rule of not mixing Church and State. Usually these attempts go nowhere, and those who believe it's important send their kids to private church-based schools.
posted by Houstonian at 1:01 PM on July 19, 2008

We had a rough overview of Greek and Roman mythology in my high school (I would imagine with the history classes, but I can't remember exactly - it might actually have been Latin or English); I think it was mainly a list of the major gods/goddesses and their attributes. No modern religion, certainly.
posted by frobozz at 1:02 PM on July 19, 2008

Teachers in our country are not educators in the traditional sense but rather classroom administrators. Teacher training is not subject specific, but rather focused on working within the school as a team member with the goal of passing as many students as possible.

This is not true. My science teachers in high school all had a MS or PhD in their respective sciences, and only taught classes in what they were trained in.
posted by smackfu at 1:04 PM on July 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

My public high school (Colorado, 4 years ago) had required humanities classes that would gloss over religion, and we'd get worksheets in world history class, but nothing that even remotely came close to a serious study. I learned a little about Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Jainism, but that was about it. Nobody ever said anything about Christianity. I got a lot of Greek mythology in my classical humanities class, but then my friends took Asian humanities and got a lot of the Mahabharata.

The one teacher I had that seriously tried to teach us about Buddhism started with a huge disclaimer about how he wasn't preaching, just educating, and just because he talked about it didn't mean you needed to feel pressure to convert, etc. Then he started complaining about how the district was being stupid in not letting him teach about Buddhism if he wanted to, and we never actually got around to learning about it.
posted by lilac girl at 1:05 PM on July 19, 2008

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks for the quick replies.

Besides, what would be the rationale FOR teaching it? Why do students need Mythology classes to the exclusion of other types?
To me learning about religion is a part of a basic education about who we are along with for instance literature, history, psychology and philosophy. It's part of learning about what people think and do and what impact it has had on the world.
posted by bjrn at 1:06 PM on July 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Greek and Roman mythology is taught, but not as religion. More like history or literature.
posted by smackfu at 1:06 PM on July 19, 2008

Many of the schools that I have experience with avoid any in-depth study of religion. Mythology is generally studied in a vague manner in earlier grades and sometimes offered as an elective at the secondary level.

Interpretations of constitutional provisions generally state the schools should (1) not interfere with an individual student's right to religious beliefs and (2) should not favor the establishment of one religion over another.

In theory this means that a well balanced comparative religious studies class that looks at the basic foundations of a variety of religions without advocating any beliefs is perfectly allowable (and makes a lot of sense in this day and age). In practice, it is hard to establish that sort of balance and many public school systems are afraid of conservative Christian groups AND their opposites making a stink over what should and should not be studied and so this sort of class is avoided.
posted by Macduff at 1:12 PM on July 19, 2008

Recent, personal experience from a public HS in Virginia: Mythology is covered heavily in English/History, often as a way to link the two. One of our summer reading assignments last year was to make a list of all the Greek mythological figures, and we discussed Greek and Roman a lot, although no Norse. We also discussed ancient Egyptian religious beliefs.

There is a World Religions elective, but other than that, discussion of modern religions is avoided like the plague whenever possible and awkwardly glossed over when it's required.

So, to directly answer your question: most public schools do have some type of World Religions class available, at least from my experience, although it is rarely touched upon in required courses.
posted by Hargrimm at 1:13 PM on July 19, 2008

bjrn, are you from Norway (since you mention Norse mythology)? Didn't Norway recently change their rules about teaching Lutheranism in school, for much the same reasons that we do not teach religion in our schools?

I would say that religious thought is taught in conjunction with other classes. For example, when you are reading The Scarlet Letter, you are also taught about religious beliefs in the Northwest US at that time, and when you are learning in History class about the first Europeans coming to the US, you learn about the religious reasons behind some of the migration. And when you learn about Henry VIII, you learn about the beginnings of the Church of England... things like that. But not intensive study, or study for its own sake without being part of something else to give you the bigger picture.
posted by Houstonian at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2008

To me learning about religion is a part of a basic education about who we are along with for instance literature, history, psychology and philosophy

They don't teach psychology or philosophy either. This is not related to separation of church and state though. More that public school before college (which is over at age 18) is supposed to be a core of education in the basic subjects (science / math / history / literature), and college is where students can choose to explore further.
posted by smackfu at 1:14 PM on July 19, 2008

By the way, wfrgms statement about teachers are largely untrue. Most states do require educators to have knowledge beyond the core subject that perhaps could be looked at as "administrative", but at the secondary level a teacher must have degrees that are subject specific and many have masters degrees in their core subject area. The idea that a school of any size would not have someone qualified to teach comparative religion is laughable. It is simply a question of having the support for such a curriculum within the community.

Additionally, the focus on testing is a huge issue in our schools, but is not the primary reason religious study is generally avoided in many school systems.
posted by Macduff at 1:27 PM on July 19, 2008

Response by poster: Not Norwegian, but close. I went to a (non-religious) private school in Sweden. Our curriculum might have differed a bit from the public schools, but the Swedish schools have a list of subjects called core subjects, and among them is religious studies (along with Swedish, English, Math, Social studies, Phys ed, Science and Arts), everyone gets those subjects in what's roughly equivalent to high school.
posted by bjrn at 1:32 PM on July 19, 2008

US public schools are of very low quality because they are generally underfunded and mismanaged, a consequence of our republican system of government. Many things that a reasonable person would think ought to be a part of every human's education are ignored and neglected, and a lot of useless stuff is taught as well.

Asking about 'rationale' for US public school decisions is senseless. The question implies that there is a rationale.

Continental folk reading this need to understand, by the way, that our use of the words 'public' and 'private' to describe schools is very different from what is meant by the same words in the UK and other parts of Europe.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:36 PM on July 19, 2008

To me learning about religion is a part of a basic education about who we are

This is exactly the problem. "Who we are" with respect to religion is an incredibly divisive topic here. At least in my part of the country ("the Bible Belt"), Protestant Christian religion is very essential to people's sense of self, and if you tried to teach someone's kid about Buddhism or even Judaism (heaven forbid you teach Islam!!) they would be extremely annoyed. They don't see the need for their kid to know about those other religions. On the other hand, public schools cannot teach just Christianity (Protestant Christianity at that), so there's a stalemate. We leave those topics to the parents and if the parents want it taught in school, they pay for private school or homeschool their kids.

Now that i think about it, I think we got a quick run through of religions in social studies one year. I remember learning how to pronounce Taoism and basically learning the religions the way we learn vocabulary words before moving on to other stuff.
posted by parkerjackson at 1:39 PM on July 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

From what I've seen, teaching anything involving religion gets tricky because to some religion is Truth (note the capital T); if you believe that one religion is the Truth and the rest lies, Comparative Religion seems like a silly (or even sacreligious) class.

I'll agree that it provides insight into cultures and so on, but for what it's worth there's no Anthropology classes in most high schools either (History also takes over for Social Studies in most schools I've seen). The sort of comparative classes you're looking for don't seem to come until college.
posted by justnathan at 1:43 PM on July 19, 2008

To give you a feel for how the debate over this is in the States, you could read this article from our local paper yesterday. Some school districts in Texas are now allowed to offer religion as an elective (not a core subject), and the debate is over how it will be graded, how to keep teachers teaching instead of preaching, and how to ensure that nobody's civil liberties are trampled. The article has already received 209 comments, some of which are rather embarrassing, but it does show a cross-section of beliefs about this issue (self-selected for readers of this newspaper, who read this type of article, and who type comments in response to news articles).
posted by Houstonian at 1:43 PM on July 19, 2008

Asking about 'rationale' for US public school decisions is senseless. The question implies that there is a rationale.

More appropriately, you would have to question the rationale of specific states or specific towns. A vast majority of the control and funding of schools is based upon individual communities rather than the federal government. Beyond some punitive measures for truly failing schools, the federal government has very little control over what is studied.
posted by Macduff at 1:46 PM on July 19, 2008

That sounds right to me. But we had Greek and Roman mythology like ever other year, it seemed like. This was in Texas.
posted by Nattie at 1:46 PM on July 19, 2008

What Houstonian said about religion being mentioned in regards to history and social studies, but not directly as a separate class. Religion is generally regarded as something your parents teach you. If they want you to learn it in a school, they send you to a private school. (I grew up in Illinois, if that means anything.)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 1:51 PM on July 19, 2008

My school (Georgia US) covered Greek sagas (Odyssey, Illiad) and we learned about some gods as characters in those stories. We didn't cover any mythologies in any depth, for the most part except in passing -- Norse, Christian, Greek, Egyptian, et c. all we heard about so that I know about Thor, Moses, Apollo, Anubis, Mithras, Buddha, et c. but only in passing

I think religion is too caustic of a subject in the U.S. that makes too many peoples' brains to shut down, to have any comparative class in 4-years to 18-years old students (what we call K-12). Best to avoid it altogether, we think, than stoke the wrath of the 1% * thousands of people.
posted by cmiller at 1:56 PM on July 19, 2008

We covered the basic tenets of major world religions in my high school philosophy class. Mythology, esp. Greek and Roman, is addressed in the high school English-Language Arts content standards in California.
posted by HotPatatta at 1:57 PM on July 19, 2008

Hell, so many public schools are so under-funded, you're lucky to get a reasonably good english or math class. Comparative religion classes would be a huge luxury.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:00 PM on July 19, 2008

I also did not have religion classes in public school.

My guess is that the reason has probably more to do with educational funding than separation of church and state. My school district didn't even offer classes in civics or government. Of course, typically, we had one of the best football teams around! Go team!
posted by brandnew at 2:14 PM on July 19, 2008

My middle school did teach about both ancient Mythology (i.e. dead religions) as well as modern ones. This was in Kansas City, so not exactly hippy central, nor the buckle of the bible belt.

I think both mythology and modern religions were covered in one of my history classes, since they are important to their respective cultures, and... the history of the world. It seemed perfectly reasonable, and indeed helpful.

The objections/problems with doing that are as stated by people above. The first amendment here, as well as people's views of religion in general could make it highly problematic. In the United States teaching a religion (as differentiated from teaching about a religion) in public schools is in principle absolutely out of the question. This favors one religion over another. In principle, though, there is nothing wrong with teaching about religions, as was done at my middle school. We learned about ancient Greek and Roman Mythology, as well as the big three modern ones, as far as I can remember, as well as Confucianism, probably also some of the mythology from the ancient Americas, and we might have spent a few minutes on some African Mythology. I don't think most people have a problem with the teaching of Mythology (dead religions). Most people who back secularism don't see much harm with it because since nobody really believes it anymore, nobody is going to intentionally or accidentally indoctrinate students with it. Same with the Christian right too I guess. There are some far left liberals who think that there is too much emphasis on Greek and Roman mythology and not enough on eastern, American, and African mythology.

As far as modern religions, some secularists would contend that you can say that it's okay to teach about religions, but that followers of a given religion (usually christianity) will lean a bit too far (intentionally or not) towards teaching their religion, while teaching about others.

I should also mention that I went to Spanish immersion schools for k-8 (went to Catholic school for High School). In that time, we learned a lot about Latin American traditions (including religious ones), and also about how Latin American Christianity in general is heavily influenced by the previous native cultures and religions. Looking back, some of this did occasionally cross the line a bit.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 2:25 PM on July 19, 2008

Wow. Thanks for the quick replies.

The quick replies you received are almost universally misleading you because of the way you asked your question.

It is true that very few US public school systems would offer classes on religion or comparative religion.

It is also probably true that almost every US public school system covers topics of religion and comparative religion.

But not in classes called "comparative religion," as others have noted.

We learned a bunch about Greek and Roman mythology... in world history classes, and in various "English" (=literature) classes.

We learned about old grim Catholicism when we spent like a whole semester on Paradise Lost.

We learned about protestantism, where the movement arose, differences from Catholicism, and so on when we did European history.

We learned about Calvinism and its doctrines in the first several weeks of American history classes. And again in English courses. And again in European history.

We learned about broad tenets of Islam in world history classes.

We learned about broad ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism in world history courses.

And so on. And I did not go to particularly stellar schools.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:39 PM on July 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

When I was in fifth and sixth grade (public school, Orange County, California during the late 70's), every Wednesday two trailers would pull up to the front of the school, and the during the school day classes would file out of the school and into the trailers. One of the trailers was for Catholics, the other for Protestants. Basically, it was a little Sunday School type affair, with religious instruction, prayer, hymns, little workbooks and Jesus stickers. Students whose parents objected (very few) stayed behind in the classroom and were given busy work to do.
This program, known as Religious Released Time still exists in parts of the US, and Wikipedia estimates that 250,000 students take part nationwide. Technically it skirts the legal issues by taking place off of school grounds, by receiving no public funding, and requiring parental permission.
posted by malocchio at 3:06 PM on July 19, 2008

Anecdotal data point: The first time I encountered the five "major" religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism Buddhism) in a school context was a junior high school class, in which it was treated really as an aspect of culture. I don't recall religion outside of a history class after that.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 3:12 PM on July 19, 2008

I went to a public technical high school (I guess it was actually a "prep school" but it was never referred to that way) where students chose a curriculum to study, much like college. They also offered a large variety and number of elective classes, including comparative religion, Bible as literature, and several similar classes. I also recall lower-grade classes teaching about religions as part of social studies or history.

As many of said, it's such a hot-button issue here in the States that most schools would rather just avoid the hassle.

However, many school districts allow students to meet after hours for religious study or clubs. The caveat is that if one type of religion is allowed to use the school facilities in this way, then they all do.

Don't try to make too much sense of it, because much of it is ruled by emotion.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 3:24 PM on July 19, 2008

I just graduated from high school in Texas this June, so I have a pretty close perspective on this topic.

In my personal experience, religion was never really mentioned until about 6th grade, at which point all students had a sort of geography based social studies course, in which we studied maps etc. and had a unit covering the very basics of the Five Major World Religions, namely Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

All high school students also take World Geography, a class dealing with the world area by area, mostly focusing on geography and culture and current events. This necessarily entailed some discussion of religion. I also took a two year course over 9th and 10th grades called Humanities, which is our district's gifted/talented class for high schoolers. We studied more or less the same five religions along with Taoism, Shinto and Confucianism in some depth, with a focus on the art and architecture inspired by those religions. We did stuff like learn the common structures of mosques and cathedrals, watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and write an essay looking for Confucian and Taoist influences, lots of stuff. It was a good class.

My experience diverges a little from the typical because I was in the IB program my last two years of high school, which means I took a class called Theory of Knowledge in which we again learned about the major religions of the world, along with a lot of basic philosophy and other things. At this point pretty much everyone is like yeah yeah, five pillars of Islam, Eightfold path, I've heard this before.

Alongside all this curriculum stuff, I live in a fairly diverse area meaning we had in my TOK class, for instance, someone who actually practiced most of the religions we studied. That's been pretty true throughout my public schooling, so I feel like I got a little more depth than just a printout with some basic tenets.
posted by MadamM at 3:26 PM on July 19, 2008

In my experience from going to (public) school in upstate NY, I recall learning about religion in 9th grade history class and that is about it. Mostly just went over the basics of what they believed and why their leaders were important historically and that is about it.

I remember going over religions when I was in 6th grade (and was still attending Catholic school) but obviously there's a bit of bias there and not reflective of the typical American experience.

I definitely remember in 9th grade doing Greek mythology in English class for two weeks or so. All I remember is this story of how Zeus and some other god decide to screw around with the mortals, pretend to be beggars, only for one of the poorest Athenians to help them as opposed to the rich Athenians who shunned them.

There was an elective class in high school on The King James Bible, but according to the course catalog, it mostly treated the Bible as a piece of literature, like "Moby Dick" or "Paradise Lost" and it looked at the influence of the KJ Bible on English literature.

So that's the extent from my anecdotal experience.
posted by champthom at 3:26 PM on July 19, 2008

Religious history is taught in social studies to a small degree, and it is the religious folk who would scream at any objective research into their beliefs. Mythology is taught in most schools as literature.
posted by Brian B. at 3:48 PM on July 19, 2008

Not until university - but there isn't very much variety at all below college level. There aren't many choices beyond what language to study and a few advanced placement classes/electives which were really basic studies. My school's most specialized electives were psychology, sociology, statistics, economics, journalism, and a ton of science-based courses.

But religion was definitely discussed, and often in great detail.

We studied mythology in many of my English classes and religion in most of my Social Studies classes. My 7th grade history class (which I believe was in 2001) had a large portion on Islam. 8th involved religions native to South America. 9th grade class was Western Civilization, and involved a lot of ancient philosophy (think Plato, Aristotle.) I remember learning about the structures of Cathedrals. My 10th grade social studies class was focused on non-Western history, and we spent several months learning about Palestine and Israel (religion was of course involved.) We also studied Confucianism and Buddhism while learning about recent Chinese history. And of course the history of religion in America was a large theme in my AP American history class in 11th grade and my 12th grade AP American Government class.

So... while there is no specific "Comparative Religion" class, in a good school, at least, it definitely works its way in there. It would be very difficult to avoid otherwise. But there isn't a lot of room for new classes in most schools, and I think religion is such a touchy subject that no one wants to lobby to make a class dedicated solely to its study.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:55 PM on July 19, 2008

Oh. I should also add that I attended public school in Connecticut until 10th grade. My school in there was excellently open-minded about religion - one of the social studies teachers was actually a Buddhist monk of some sort (sadly I don't know enough about Buddhism or him to say what his situation was), and my 10th grade teacher was from a Muslim background AFAIK (they can't really discuss their personal beliefs. Which sadly might negate a lot of the learning that could have occurred, but we at least weren't being brow-beaten with a western point of view.) My other school, in Ohio, was decently religiously diverse in the same manner.

So my experience might be an outlier in terms of religious discussion, which is a little depressing because it could have been better.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 4:02 PM on July 19, 2008

I am a high school senior.

I've attended two school districts in the past 6 years. Neither one offered any sort of "religious history" of any kind.

In English and Lit classes, we did study Greek mythology, but that's as far as that went. And it was really a cursory glance.

In one of my world history classes our teacher kept a copy of the Koran, Bible, and other religious books in her class "because she could", and because she fancied being controversial. None were ever opened, except for one time she quoted the Koran out of context.

Prayer is neither forbidden nor encouraged. I've heard some adults say or imply that it's forbidden, but I've never seen this. We have a "moment of silence" at our school every day after we say the pledge to the American flag. This is usually 40-50 seconds. I use it to meditate a bit on the upcoming day. Others use it to pray, some use it to fish their mechanical pencils out of their bags. Some just sit down and ignore it. No one really cares what you do.

Some teachers have shared their beliefs with us. We don't care. Not in an apathetic way, I mean, I just mean that that doesn't offend us. Of course, this is in mostly AP/Honors classes. Other, less... studious students might feel differently. We're all pretty open minded.

Also, various general religious things were learned in history classes. The Protestant/Catholic split and such. Muslim/Jewish/Christian/Buddhist histories are taught, not in-depth. But decently.

If you have any specific questions, I can try to answer them. Feel free to pm me.
posted by Precision at 4:28 PM on July 19, 2008

The better the school, the more likely you are to see a Comparative Religion class. I took one in high school, but apparently my school was (at least at the time) one of the top high schools in the nation, and hence in no way representative.

Something to remember is that a lot of education policy still in place today was set during the Cold War, at which time it was vitally important that students had a strong science and mathematics education -- and not just any science and math, but technologically oriented science and math. Trigonometry and chemistry rather than number theory and cosmology. In an environment like that, comparative religion was the exact opposite of what was desirable for students to spend time on (from the perspective of the government at the time, that is).
posted by voltairemodern at 4:54 PM on July 19, 2008

My public high school (Indiana, 15 years ago) had a comparative religion course that was available but not required.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:33 PM on July 19, 2008

We went over greek/roman mythology in my English class in 8th grade, spent a lot of time on it too. We probably spent a little time on other religions in some history/ 'world studies' classes, but never was any time spent on Christianity.
posted by delmoi at 5:42 PM on July 19, 2008

Datapoint: North Carolina, 1970s. You did see "Bible as History" or "Bible as Literature" classes offered as electives. At the time, they were relatively low-level classes, not very difficult or academically-oriented. Kids who were headed to serious college careers didn't take them. Slacker kids might take them if they really needed another passing credit for graduation.

In Honors American Literature one of the authors in the curriculum was Jonathan Edwards.

It hasn't been explicitly said above, but it's worth remembering that public schools in the U.S. are mostly governed at the local or "school district" level, with some policies set at the state level and some intervention from the federal government and courts.

It also happened that some strictly religious parents would react to secular public schools by pulling their children out altogether and paying out-of-pocket to send them to private, religious schools. In the 1970s, it was more common for white parents to do this to avoid having their kids mix with black kids rather than from religious fervor--what the numbers and proportions are today, I don't know. Religious schools at the time did get an influx of business from this kind of reaction to integrated schools.
posted by gimonca at 5:53 PM on July 19, 2008

If they teach the classical languages (latin/greek), they will have mythology. If they don't they won't.

Do you consider Homer (illiad/odyssey) to be mythology? I know TONS of people who read that in school.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 6:21 PM on July 19, 2008

In my high school, we studied some religious texts such as the Bible in World Literature class, and the basics of some religions such as Buddhism in World History. But I don't think there was a World Religions class, and if there was, it would have been an elective. There were also electives for psychology and sociology, and we studied some philosophical texts in Literature class but there was no philosophy class. There were English (literature/grammar), History (plus some civics and geography), Math, Science, a foreign language of your choice, Arts and Physical Education. That was all that was required. English was the only one you absolutely had to pass every year in order to graduate on time.
posted by lampoil at 6:42 PM on July 19, 2008

In the late-eighties when I was in high school, we lobbied in support of a Comparative Religions elective. The administration allowed it, with the caveat that it be an honors-level class, and that students get parental approval. A disclaimer regarding the class not being religious instruction -- i.e. not "preaching" any of these religions, was required as part of the stated curriculum. A couple of my friends opted not to take the class. Because they or their parents felt that they would get upset. About learning about "all those people who will go to hell."

This was not in a particularly conservative area -- I grew up in an affluent neighborhood in the Balto/Annapolis area with a reputation for superior schools. Most of us went to large mainstream churches and were "culturally Christian" more than devout or evangelical. The class itself? Meh. Pretty shallow, about the level of instruction I'd expect from a middle-school textbook, very little actual comparison between religions. Very safe.

Otherwise, like most responses upthread, we got a little bit of Greek/Roman mythology in English class for context, and got a bit through history classes, what with religion being, uh, sorta significant to history (y'know, Henry VIII/Church of England, Martin Luther, Puritans.) I had a terrific Latin class that covered religion in the Roman Empire, too.

I must say that the kids who didn't go to Sunday school had a really hard time in English class. Even moreso in college. Until relatively recently, biblical knowledge was commonplace in people of all classes, and allusions run throughout Western Literature. ROU_Xenophobe, Paradise Lost is an explicitly Protestant work.

On the positive side, my small, conservative, southern, Methodist-affiliated college had terrific Comparative Religion courses.
posted by desuetude at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2008

Here in the US there is a huge pull to get Religion into the classroom...masquerading as Science.
posted by mynameismandab at 8:05 PM on July 19, 2008

Data point: okay public school, Michigan, 1980s-1990s: once a social studies teacher made the 1 Jewish kid and 1 Muslim kid spend a day telling the rest of the school about their religions. (I actually remember this very very vividly, easily my most vivid middle school memory), but other wise no.
posted by k8t at 10:33 PM on July 19, 2008

The world history curriculum in Florida has required units on the major world religions. There's also a state approved curriculum for world religion that I've seen taught. Course descriptions are available from the Florida Department of Education. The AP World History course also has a significant portion devoted to religion and the course guide is available from the College Board. I'm sure you can turn up similar course descriptions for other states.
posted by ahughey at 2:27 AM on July 20, 2008

Response by poster: Okay, it sounds like while many schools don't have religious studies or comparative religion classes, teaching about (the basics of) religions often is part of history, social sciences and literature classes.

Thank you all for your answers!
posted by bjrn at 4:05 AM on July 20, 2008

Interesting question. I grew up in North Carolina. No, I didn't learn about comparative religion in high school. But yes, I did learn an awful lot of mythology. Multiple grade levels of English included some degree of ancient Greco-Roman mythology. What that has to do with English is beyond my understanding.
posted by Laugh_track at 5:31 AM on July 20, 2008

Schools tread lightly where religion is concerned. Funding is limited, and people in the U.S. can't wait to slap anyone with a lawsuit for any reason. As I recall, religion was dealt with from more of an archeological/anthropological standpoint, as in this ancient society believed this, and that ancient society believed that. Schools have to be very careful to only deal with facts and leave opinions out. I remember learning about greek/roman mythology, but never from a "this is true, this is false" standpoint.
posted by high0nfire at 10:51 AM on July 20, 2008

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