I have a unique perspective on how the topic of religion was treated as an academic subject. Here is my verdict. Protestant schools do a good job teaching their particular theology and an above average job teaching how that theological development fits into western civilization. This is no doubt a reflection of the staffs world view. The catholic school I was in touched briefly on the subject of "Benedictine Values" and little else. The one and only survey of religion class I took was interestingly enough, in a public school.
That class was excellent. I believe that the reason it was excellent was the teacher. Mr. Vanderlee was one of those stern faced lanky instructors that set your mind to thinking of Ichabod Crane to look at and Plato when you listened to him lecture. He was classically educated. He alone is why the school listed such lofty subjects as Latin I to IV, Sociology, Classical Studies, Classical Lit, Philosophy, and Fencing on its curriculum. The school board had stopped most all of that educational nonsense years before I made it his Greco-Roman classroom. Seriously, the classroom was decorated with real marble Corinthian columns and back and white marble floors. Equally seriously, they didn't let him teach half the stuff he was able to. They wanted it on the official curriculum because it looked good for the school.
Mr. Vanderlee was old, which in strictly practical terms in a union controlled state education system, meant he had tenure and couldn't be forced out of his job until he had served at least 40 years. The union contract also gave him and 3 or 4 other teachers that magical cloak of seniority. Which meant the school couldn't force him to entertain a roomful of subhuman dullards biding their time before they joined the criminal justice system. So he got to teach what was euphuistically called "college prep". One of those classes was World Religions and it was a wonderful learning experience.
The class was open to all students in the 11th and 12th grades. It surveyed the commonly held tenants of each religion and some of the major denominational divisions inside of each religious group. It was basic, non-partisan information. There was nothing that would lead you to believe that the teacher had any thought of proselytizing you towards or away from, any of the religions or their denominational subdivisions. The student was presented with factual information about the subject of world religions. In a word, the student was "educated".
Today this headline caught my eye: Public School Promotes 5 Pillars of Islam. From the story:
Parents at a Wichita, Kan. elementary school were shocked to discover a giant wall display inside the building promoting the five pillars of Islam.
The large exhibit was erected before the start of the school year as part of a religion component being taught at Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet School, a school district spokesperson told Fox News.The spokesperson goes on to preform some verbal gymnastics about "context" and how they aren't teaching Islam because they have a picture of the "last supper" in an art display. Whatever.
There are some issues that require some deeper thought.
First, my very good experience with this type of teaching in a public school was age appropriate. It was done in high school. The students were between 16 and 18 years old, not little kids in an elementary school. Any type of religious teaching at this age, by agents of the state is wrong. This is why Thanksgiving day instruction is limited to talking about the concept of "religious freedom". When was the last time a public school teacher explained the theology of the pilgrims to a bunch of 2nd graders?
Second, the five pillars of Islam are/is a definitive Islamic Theological proposition. This is akin to teaching the Jewish understanding of the Ten Commandments. In the interest of equal time are they going to teach the Catholic Catechism? How about Luther's 95 points? How much time are they spending on 5 point Calvinism? The Book of Mormon should get some coverage. What about the Jehovah's Witnesses? L. Ron Hubbard's talking points should be covered too. For good measure they can watch all of John Travolta's movies and talk about how Scientology affected his career. OK that last one isn't a real suggestion, I threw it in to invoke images of eternal suffering.
Third, it is a historical fact that most of the art produced in the enlightenment was religious in nature. This includes the field of music as well. That doesn't matter. One can learn from, and enjoy all the principles of light, texture, shading, etc without one bit of theology by examining the Madonna or Delilah and Sampson. They are paintings not commentary. The same holds true for music. Gloria in Excelsis Deo is a definitive Christian theological statement, however unless your average public school third grader is up on his Latin, he's probably just going to be listening to the movements, beat and tempo of the music. That's the thing, much of classical music is instrumental, even though the original composer was working with Christian aims in mind, today its just music that some people enjoy. However, if one wants to eliminate those pieces that are particularly religious from the curriculum, I have no objection. Especially since elementary schools should be teaching reading, writing and arithmetic BEFORE any of those other subjects. If the kid can't read "see Spot run" why are we burdening him with comparative religions?