Importance of Religious Education in School Curriculum

Where to place religious education in the academic curriculum, is one of the renewed discussions currently highlighted throughout the US. This debate has been motivated by developments planned to minimize provisions by providing a framework for religious education that can advance good practice in teaching and learning and alleviate some of the issues of training teachers and providing high quality resources when each local area may have a different syllabus for the subject.

It has been recognized that the production of high-quality resources for religious education is challenging when publishers cannot be as confident as they are in other curriculum areas that all pupils in a particular key stage will be studying the same topics. Seeking agreement on what might constitute a national framework for religious education has been a protracted and carefully negotiated process requiring decisions to be made regarding what should be recommended and with what degree of prescription. Determining the curriculum for any subject is bound to be fraught with difficulty, as choices have to be made concerning what to include and so inevitably what to exclude. In religious education the process has always been regarded as particularly sensitive, given the potential for controversy when there is a need to take account of more than one major religious tradition and limited curriculum time available. The emerging consensus as to the desirability of a national framework has been challenged by moves to go beyond the establishing of a set of guidelines to advocating a national syllabus for religious education that would more closely mirror the provision for other subjects in the English National Curriculum.

At the same time as this issue has preoccupied religious educators, other advancements in the syllabus have challenged the addition of religious education as a compulsory subject. The strengthening of personal, social and health studies in the National Curriculum and the introduction of citizenship as an additional compulsory subject has led people to question the worth of religious studies to the education. Religious studies provide a heavy set of arguments that demand serious attention of religious educators, not only in the US but also across other international communities.

Few years ago, there were only four departments of religious studies in British Universities. The recent decision by a university in the UK that was a pioneer in establishing the academic study of religion, as opposed to theology or divinity, to close its department of religious studies and offer staff a merger with a department of theology in a neighboring institution indicates that the claim of the discipline to have a unique contribution to make is still not generally understood and may not be sufficiently convincing to secure its status in the modern university. Nevertheless, religious studies have been regarded as a significant influence on the teaching of religious education in schools. The impact has perhaps been overstated and was in any case largely confined to one aspect of religious studies; the phenomenological approach. Much remains to be done to develop understanding of the relationships between religious studies, theology and religious education.

Harvard Creates Science and Religion Chair

Theologian Harvey Cox, who chronicled the rising popularity of religion studies in his 2004 book When Jesus Came to Harvard, may need to write a sequel: When Jesus Came to Harvard and Taught Science.

That’s because Harvard Divinity School, where Cox teaches, has accepted an endowment from alumnus Richard T. Watson to create a Professorship of Science and Religion. The school is now searching for a visiting professor in science-and-religion for the 2006-2007 academic year.

The appointment, so far, has caused few ripples — a noticeable change from 2002, when the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics drew protests after inviting physicist and Anglican priest John Polkinghorne to speak on intelligent design.

This time around, theologians were predictably encouraged, Harvard scientists were standoffish but pleasant, and secularists warily expressed a glimmer of hope that such a professorship might lend support to their causes.

The Watson professorship is the latest in a series of similarly prestigious posts that began with Princeton Theological Seminary’s 1992 appointment of J. Wentzel van Huyssteen as the first James I. McCord Professor of Theology and Science. Oxford University followed suit in 2000 with the appointment of John Hedley Brooke as its first Andreas Idreos Professors of Science and Religion. Others include Marquette University’s 2001 naming of Jame Schaefer to a newly created science and religion professorship and the 2005 appointment of Andrew Lustig to become Davidson College’s first Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science.

“The research grant and endowment for a religion-science professorship affirm the ongoing interest in relating the disciplines as a bona fide field of academic inquiry,” said Schaefer. “Harvard joins Princeton and other major universities in the world in exploring the religion-science relationship in a prestigious way.”

The news comes on the heels of a $1.5 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to a University of Missouri religion research center to study the relationship between religion and health care, and other topics. (See “Other schools encourage dialogue.”) It also comes as the John Templeton Foundation, which funds Science & Theology News, makes a grant to Harvard Divinity School and the university’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences to study the origins of altruistic behavior and their relationship to biology, theology and ethics. The John Templeton Foundation has been making such grants to Harvard since the 1990s.

“I’m a big believer in the proposition that science and religion are complementary and not contradictory, and I am much concerned about the fact that the world looks at each differently,” said Watson, a managing partner of Spieth, Bell, McCurdy & Newell Co., a Cleveland law firm, and a chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. “This gift is designed to attack that conflict.”

Greg M. Epstein, who as Humanist chaplain at Harvard has found himself at the center of such conflict, reacted to the news with caution. “I think the idea of studying science and religion is one that can lead to useful academic scholarship and the enrichment of an entire scholarly community but may very well not — depending on how the project is framed,” said Epstein.

Some wondered about how much latitude the professorship should be allowed. “If [Harvard Divinity School] gives the scholar free rein, then the possibilities of religious naturalism might get explored at a prestigious university, which will show HDS as being on the progressive cutting edge of religious studies,” said Thomas W. Clark, director of the Center for Naturalism in Somerville, Mass. “Of course, saying that the mandate is to study science and religion as complementary suggests that the conflict between science and faith-based religions might be papered over or finessed, which would be too bad,” he said. “But pseudoscience isn’t about to gain traction at Harvard, which is why the new chair won’t reflect badly on any of its science or medical departments.”

For many Harvard scientists, there is, in fact, a role for science-and-religion studies at the university — as long as it remains at the Divinity School and does not seep into the research labs and lecture halls.

Daniel Hartl, a Harvard biology professor who specializes in evolution and population genetics, said he does “not perceive any particular conflict between science and religion, at Harvard or anywhere else, as one is a matter of evidence and the other is a matter of faith.”

But although there seems to be little grounds for believing in a higher being, there is room for such a program at the university, said James Hanken, also a Harvard evolutionary biologist. “Your day-to-day activities of your average Harvard scientist won’t be affected,” he said.

Watson hopes to change that. “Those are the people into whose minds I would like to creep,” he said.

Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta

Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) is an Ecumenical association of six Protestant seminaries in Atlanta. The predominantly African American member institutions provide graduate and professional level theological education. Their mission is to train pastors, church leaders, and teachers committed to serving the church and the community. ITC members represent six different denominations.

The ITC was founded in 1958 after four seminaries came together. Original member institutions were Gammon Theological Seminary, Turner Theological Seminary, Phillips School of Theology, and Morehouse School of Religion, which recently became Baptist School of Theology. Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary later joined ITC. Absalom Jones Theological Institution was also a member school at one time, but closed its program in 1979.

Degree programs offered at ITC by its member seminaries are Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Christian Education, Master of Arts in Church Music, Doctor of Ministry, and Doctor of Theology. There are also dual degree programs. Part of ITC’s vision is to be a resource bringing together leaders from the church, academia, businesses, nonprofits, governments, and communities to develop solutions to the social and moral challenges facing our nation today.

A look at the history of ITC’s member seminaries reveals several institutions dating back to the post Civil War era. Gammon Theological Seminary was founded in 1883 as a part of Clark College in Atlanta. It is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, and Dr. Albert Mosley is President/Dean. Turner Theological Seminary was founded as a department of Morris Brown College in 1894. It is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Dr. John F. Green is the President/Dean. Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary is a Presbyterian Church (USA) seminary. It roots extend back to 1867 and the Freedman’s College of North Carolina. The seminary joined ITC in 1969, when it relocated from Charlotte. Paul T. Roberts, Sr. is the President/Dean. Baptist School of Theology, formerly Morehouse School of Religion, is associated with multiple Baptist groups. G. Martin Young is the President/Dean. Phillips School of Theology was founded at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee in 1944. It is a seminary of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The school moved to Atlanta in 1959. Dr. Marvin Frank Thomas, Sr. is President/Dean. Charles H. Mason Theological Seminary was founded in 1970 by the Church of God in Christ. Dr. Harold Bennett is President/Dean of the seminary.

ITC is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to award master and doctorate degrees. In addition, it is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). ITC is located on ten acres in the middle of the Atlanta University Center campus, at 700 Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive SW.