Teaching the History of Religion

A study of the history of religions around the world can lead to many interesting activities and projects.

By Daniella Garran

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The History of Religion

No history curriculum can be taught without giving some attention to the role that religion played in the development of cultures, nations or regions. It is important to explain to students that studying the origins of religion is in no way intended to serve as proselytizing; rather, it is meant to round out their understanding of history both past and present. Many students know very little about religions, other than their own, and in an era in which tolerance and understanding is critical, it is beneficial to understand the major differences among the world’s religions.

Those teaching geography can easily integrate the origins of the world’s major religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – into their curriculum. An in-depth study of Asia lends itself to understanding Hinduism and Buddhism, while a study of the Middle East almost certainly should include the world’s monotheistic religions. Those teaching current events should seek to educate students about the conflict in the Middle East and its religious origins as well as the religious issues in India and in the Kashmir region. Religion is also inherently relevant to a study of the Crusades and the Middle Ages and to the Age of Exploration; religion is an interesting aspect of colonization and conquest and should be taught as such.

Consider holding a Summit on Religion in your classroom in which students focus more on similarities than on differences, and on potential solutions for a peaceful future. You may want to have different conferences within the summit, such as one that focuses on peace in the Middle East and another that concentrates on teaching tolerance to the world’s youth.

Host a cultural festival in which the traditions of each religion are featured. However, consider focusing on the cultural differences that characterize certain traditions in various countries (e.g.: how Christmas is celebrated differently throughout the world). Consider featuring special foods, dances and songs that offer students a new way of thinking about different religions.

Finally, students should also understand that people’s religion has also been a source of persecution throughout history. Work with students to understand genocides and persecutions around the world which have been based on religion (i.e.: the Holocaust). Students should learn about the propaganda, fear and misunderstandings that fueled these atrocities and how even today such persecution continues all over the world. Studying the history of religion from this perspective can help students understand the importance of activism. No unit on this topic would be complete, however, without having students write letters to their elected officials or working to raise awareness in their communities about human rights violations. What follows are ways to incorporate lessons on the history of religion.

The History of Religion:

Religions of the World:

This lesson is easy to use and can be adapted to include virtually every religion, both past and present. Working either individually, or in a small group, students can create an informative poster about the religion assigned to them explaining the key beliefs, origins, holy texts and rituals. This is an effective way for students to acquire information without creating any sort of tension in the classroom.

Global Studies Religion Fair

In a similar and related lesson, students create a museum display and brochure about the religion they’ve been assigned to research. Not only does this lesson allow students to learn about the basic tenets of the world’s religions, but it also allows them to compare and contrast their origins and their modern practices as well.

Religion in Public Schools

Students learn about freedom of religion and the separation of church and state in modern day America. They take interactive, online quizzes and analyze primary documents addressing the topic. Students can gain knowledge and the opportunity to apply it to real-world situations. There are many opportunities for collaboration with math and language arts teachers; students can collect, interpret and analyze data for math and pen letters to the editor in L.A.

World Religions

In this lesson, students are given the opportunity to consider the role that religion plays in their own lives. They focus on how a particular religion has influenced their lives and how it may or may not affect their actions. As with any sensitive topic, it is important for teachers to establish guidelines and parameters for discussion.