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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Volume 32 Number 1
Spring 2005

Defining and Promoting the Study of Religion in British and American Schools

Bruce Grelle

Robert Jackson has noted that "the histories of religion and state relationships and of civil religion in different countries are key factors in shaping policy for the study of religions in the education systems of particular states." One of the most obvious indications of these historical, cultural, and legal differences can be found in the different names that are used to describe the study of religion in British and American schools. "Religious education" or "RE" has become the agreed upon name for the subject matter in Britain and much of the rest of Europe, although as both Jackson and Jensen make clear in this issue of Religion & Education, this term encompasses a wide range of sometimes conflicting approaches to understanding the nature and aims of the study of religion in state-supported schools. Meanwhile, debate about how to describe the academic study of religion in public educational institutions in America is ongoing. As we shall see, a number of candidates for naming this discipline and subject-matter have been put forward, but at least for now, "religious education" is not one of them because of this phrase’s unacceptable connotations in the context of U.S. history, culture, and law.

In addition to what may well in the end amount to a rather superficial difference when it comes to describing the study of religion in British and American schools, there appear to be more substantial differences when it comes to the methods and aims of teaching about religion, when it comes to definitions of "religious literacy," and when it comes to the status of religion as a recognized subject-matter in the curriculum of state-supported schools and as an area of professional specialization for teachers.

In what follows, I will briefly explore some of these differences in how the study of religion is understood and practiced in British and American education. I will also observe that, despite some superficial and some not-so-superficial differences, there are interesting and sometimes surprising parallels between what Jackson identifies as the main approaches to religious education and plurality in Britain and corresponding approaches to religion and public education in the United States.

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