A Little Religion in Newton?

Happy Easter!  Belated Happy Purim as well.  And a belated Happy Holi for those of the Hindu faith. These past few days have been interesting confluence of the multitude of ways human beings celebrate their connection with God.  Despite this, it still feels to me that the world is becoming less religious or at least less respectful of religion. Some research supports the former feeling.

Personally, I believe religion is an important part of the human experience.  And I believe that more often than not, the practitioners of the major faiths are made better by them. I grew up in Houston and am Catholic.  Yet I remember being so inspired by Hakeem Olajuwon, whose faithful adherence to his Islamic faith led him to fast during Ramadan even though he had games to play (and certainly needed food and water!). His example did not make me want to convert to Islam, but it did encourage me to pay attention to my own faith. Today’s children sadly have a different exposure to Islam, thanks to the murderous savages of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Therefore, I wonder where, besides the news, do children today learn about religion. Most, I am sure, grow up in the faith their families hold. So Christian children will know about Christianity, and Jewish children will know about Judaism and so on. But how do children learn about other faiths? How much do Christian children know about Judaism? And how much do Jewish children know about Buddhists?

I looked over the Newton South curriculum and was surprised that there were no courses devoted to religion. A search for the word “religion” reveals only a single reference in a course called “Intermediate International Cuisine.” And no mentions of “Christian,” “Jewish,” “Hindu” or “Islam.” No mention of “atheism” either.

Is this a good thing? Or are we missing an opportunity to develop a more informed and tolerant citizenry? Or am I just off base here, either in substance or because I missed some other obvious way religion is addressed? I look forward to reading your thoughts . . .


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Evan JacobiGreer SwistonJohn KootTed Hess-MahanLynne LeBlanc Recent comment authors
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Bill Roesner
Bill Roesner

I’m sorry to be the skunk at this Easter Sunday’s Tea Party, but I couldn’t disagree more with the sentiments expressed here about the need for religion in a civilized society.
Look around the world at the devastation wrought in the name of religion. From the Egyptians , and the Roman Emporers, to Northern Ireland and today’s Isis, mankind has suffered at the throws of superstitious powerful personalities, imposing their beliefs on their less powerful counterparts.
The more educated a society can become, the less religion will play a part in the happiness of a civilization, and the more likely we might be able to sustain ourselves on this planet.

Jess Barton

Maybe the more we know about different religions the less prevalent hatred toward different religions will become? As Anil wrote, youth are exposed to religion mainly (or solely) through their family, with probably some knowledge coming from their friends’ families as well. Maybe it is possible that if students were taught — in a positive and comprehensive manner — about religions other than their own at a young age this could result in a less vitriolic society. Given the undeniable role that all religions have played throughout world history it would be interesting to see an objective course taught on this subject.

Julia Malakie

In a way, I think it’s a shame that we’d need to be educated about other people’s religions to be tolerant of them, but maybe we do. I had five years of Catholic school education at St. Bernard’s in the 1960’s (2nd through 5th grades) and the message I got was ours was the one true religion but people of other faiths would go to Heaven eventually (after Limbo?) if they were good people. Although I gave back all the right answers on the tests, even at that age I saw a problem there. I thought, but never said to the nuns, “but all those other religions think theirs is the right one. We can’t all be right. Who’s to say we’re right?” And the effect of having to go to Mass every Sunday through high school when I would rather have been reading a book was that I stopped as soon as I went off to MIT, and became an instant un-organized agnostic. So perhaps partly because I’ve never been a great believer, I’ve never felt any intolerance for other people’s religions. My best friends in K-1 at Franklin were Jewish; at junior high at a school for largely military American expats in England, Jewish, Mormon and some kind of Protestant. At Newton High, mostly Jewish. I have no clue what most of my co-workers over the years have been. It’s pretty relaxing being agnostic. But I do think educating kids about world religions would be a good thing,… Read more »

Julia Malakie

Hey, @Chris Pitts, how the heck do I get paragraph breaks to work?

Lynne LeBlanc

Love this post and I especially appreciate the sentiment that seeing others express hope and faith in their own religion encourages one in ones own. Humans are wicked and wonderful. Religion does not make us exclusively either.

Ted Hess-Mahan
Ted Hess-Mahan

I have always felt truly blessed to have an extended family comprising so many different faiths (and atheists as well) and ethnicities. My own parents were Catholic and Protestant, Irish and Portuguese. My 95 year old uncle is a Jewish immigrant who came to America alone when he was 8 to escape persecution in Russia. Our cousins are half-Indian and spent half their youth in India raised in the Hindi tradition. The rest of our family is an ecumenical mix of all kinds. Growing up, because my mother was our church organist and choir director, we all spent every Sunday in church and sang in the choir. My wife and I are now Unitarian-Universalists who have gone to great lengths to make sure our children are exposed to many different faiths, a task made much easier after we moved to Newton 20 years ago. Then, as now, my church has been a great source of comfort and inspiration to me. While I acknowledge the evil done in the name of religion, there is so much good that has been done in the pursuit of religious faith no matter what denomination. Happy holidays to everyone.

John Koot

Thank you for this reflective and thought-provoking post, Anil! I was raised in a Fundamentalist Protestant faith in which church buildings were, like those of the New England Congregationalists, almost devoid of decoration. We were frequently cautioned not to accompany any Roman Catholic friends to their churches, lest we be tempted by the richly-appointed interiors, the stained-glass windows, and the elaborate rituals of the Mass to abandon our faith for theirs!

As Ted Hess-Mahan and Julia Malakie have already noted, Newton has a remarkably diverse population, which gave my two daughters, through their classmates and friends in the Newton schools, the opportunity to gain exposure to a wide range of cultures and religions. It is difficult to demonize or stereotype people of other cultural backgrounds when one has not only met them, but played with them and had overnights with them.

During their years at Newton South, both my daughters took an English course which included a segment that dealt with the Bible as literature (not as doctrine), but I do not recall their having studied world religions other than in passing, as part of world history. I think it would be valuable to have such an offering, at least as an elective, for the reasons that Jess Barton gives.

Greer Swiston

I believe that having and holding strong beliefs is indeed important for the human spirit. But when religion completely replaces rational thought, then we have trouble.

As for teaching religion, well, I would have a problem of someone teaching “religion” as a general topic. But I would definitely find value in a class that exposed the students to the different religions out there and how to go about learning more about each religion themselves. I spent a year studying with an extremely patient and open minded Catholic Priest to better understand catholicism. I spent hours discussing the philosophies of Buddha with my grandfather who was a long time practicing buddhist … but I would have liked it better to be able to have spoken with a monk. I think having a class that taught the students how to be curious without judging their chosen or inherited religion would be excellent.

Evan Jacobi

Hello Anil and other commentators, I’m coming to this late, but am writing because I can help answer Anil’s question. Although there may not be any formal courses on world religions or similar at North or South (I think there was one at North some years ago, but could be mistaken), students learn about religion in the two year sequence courses World History I (9th grade, prehistory – 1750) and World History II (10th grade, 1750 – present). There may also be some study of religion in other classes when relevant; for example I imagine that European History includes study of the Reformation which is essential to understanding that region, and for which it is necessary to know something about Catholic and Protestant dogma. Both the religions studied and the accuracy of the material used is variable. Much depends on the teacher; except for some broad guidelines teachers are free to choose their own curriculum and material which is then vetted via peer review. Although this is fine in theory, as practiced in Newton it leaves much to be desired. There seems to be a lack of interest in and critical thinking about class resources. For example, the text Arab World Studies Notebook, which discusses Islam, was used for years; during this entire time, it appears that not one teacher or administrator did a thirty-second internet search which would have revealed numerous scathing critiques by a wide variety of educational, community and religious organizations. If anyone did conduct a search,… Read more »

Evan Jacobi

Follow-up – Paragraph breaks appear when you press the ‘read more’ link, which makes posts easier to read. I’ve attached the handout with the “reconsidering polygamy” quote. Numerous criticisms of the Arab World Studies Notebook can be found at http://tinyurl.com/hdo8ur6.

Links to class material and criticisms of the Newton curriculum on the Middle East, including reports by CAMERA, Verity Educate, and other organizations, are on the home page of Parents for Excellence in Newton Schools (PENS), http://www.NewtonExcellence.org.