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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Studying Religious Diversity in Public Education:
An Interpretive Approach to Religious and
Intercultural Understanding

Robert Jackson

After a long period of avoiding classroom discussion of religion, fearing that it was too divisive a subject or that church-state separation might be breached, many American public schools are now moving to incorporate some form of the study of religion into their curricula. The change in attitude results partly from the view that schools have ignored religion as a force in American and world culture. Some scholars argue, on the basis of the Religious Liberty clauses the First Amendment to the Constitution, that public schools should include studies of religion in their curricula, and that these studies should be presented in a spirit of open discussion and debate which models the democratic process and constitutional principles.1 This view is endorsed by the American Assembly, which states its belief ‘that age-appropriate study about religion should be a part of all public and private elementary, secondary and university education.’2 In the view of some commentators the events of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington, and their ongoing global consequences, have reinforced the view that young Americans should be well informed about religions.3

In England and Wales, there has been a strong movement supporting a broad and non-confessional study of religions in schools since the late 1960s.4 The 1988 legislation on religious education in schools takes the subject a long way in this direction,5 while the new National Framework for Religious Education embraces a study of religions which promotes tolerance of and respect for different religious viewpoints within the open society.6 This sentiment is also to be found in the aims of citizenship education, a new curriculum subject introduced in 2002 as a compulsory part of the national curriculum for secondary schools and as an optional subject for primary schools.7

A key issue for educators is that of pedagogy in relation to the study of religions. Is it possible to find a methodology for studying religions which aims neither to promote nor to erode religious belief and which engages students in schools? This article reports a research and development project from England which draws on theory and method from ethnography or social/cultural anthropology and other sources in the social sciences. The project developed an interpretive approach to the study of religions which is being used in religious education in England and Wales and which is influencing the debates on intercultural and inter-religious education in Europe,8 South Africa,9 and Quebec.10

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