While some teachers find religion a delicate and daunting subject for classroom discussion, the following guidelines offer a simple, respectful approach to religious diversity.
1. Start with the art.
Use works of art to begin discussions of religious traditions. Choose artworks with a strong visual impact from different faith traditions and introduce them in a logical sequence based on geographical, historical or thematic connections (for example, compare and contrast Jewish, Christian and Islamic art of the Middle East, or explore the image of the tree in various faith traditions). Let students' questions and observations about specific aspects of the art lead to deeper explanations of the work's religious meanings. Offer accurate information, or have students research the culture's beliefs, rather than inviting them to offer speculative interpretations as they might with abstract modern art.
2. Tell stories.
When the work of art under consideration depicts religious characters or events, use that opportunity to tell stories from that tradition. Treat all religious narratives with equal objectivity, thoroughness and respect. Don't assume that your students already know the story of Jesus' birth, for example, and don't invite students to "make up their own stories" about the reason for Ganesha's elephant head. Remember that both are accounts of individuals who have the status of divinity in the eyes of millions.
When students ask if such stories are true, acknowledge that many religions include stories that cannot be proven scientifically but which are accepted "on faith." Some religions call these events "miracles," and the narratives that describe them hold important spiritual truths for millions of people.
3. Watch your language.
- Avoid "us and them" language, such as, "This may seem strange to us, but that's the way they do it in Africa." Don't assume that your student audience shares your perspective.
- Keep references to sacred figures simple and equitable by avoiding honorific titles. Say "Jesus" and "Mary" and "Ganesha" rather than "Jesus Christ," "the Virgin Mary" or "Lord Ganesha."
- When teaching about religious sculpture, avoid the term "idol," which carries a strong negative connotation in some faiths. If students offer that term, suggest "religious sculpture" as a substitute.
- Use "religious stories" rather than "myth," "tale," "fable" or "legend" when referring to faith narratives. Similarly, refer to the faith itself as a "religion" rather than "mythology" or "cult."
4. Solicit insider perspectives.
Invite guest commentators from diverse faiths to tell stories and answer questions about their beliefs. Make sure speakers understand that their role is to teach about their religion rather than to engage in prayer or persuasion.
If possible, take your students on field trips to different places of worship. Prepare by briefing them on worship etiquette and the meaning of various rituals. Check with members of the faith or books such as How to Be a Perfect Stranger (see Resources) for information on various worship traditions.
By Ray Williams, Curator of Education, Ackland Art Museum, UNC-Chapel Hill