Stephen C. Ainlay makes some excellent points in his discussion of the role of educating students about religion in his October 11 editorial featured in the Albany (NY) Times Union. Ainlay, the president of Union College in Schenectady, NY, discussed the importance of being aware of many religious traditions in a globalized society.

‘Religious fluency is crucial in an interconnected world. Companies like IBM have moved beyond global competition to global collaboration with their “integrated networks.” Connections between peoples and cultures are more frequent than ever before. To succeed as global citizens, we must develop a breadth and depth of knowledge about religious beliefs, traditions, rituals and worldviews other than our own. At one level, this is about etiquette. Even in America, it is easy to offend people by not acknowledging, or by acknowledging when one shouldn’t, the observance of religious holidays or rituals. It’s also about increasing the odds of success in interpersonal encounters. Success in the global market requires an awareness of family life, social institutions, dietary restrictions, attire and holidays – aspects all affected by religion.’

            Ainlay goes on to discuss the importance of being aware of other’s traditions as an important part of respecting them as human beings. These two points (the importance of knowledge of religion as a path to success and as a fundamental aspect of respecting and honoring fellow students and fellow humans) bring in to focus the argument that teaching religion in schools is not only necessary but also essential to the purpose of education. Practically speaking, teaching religion in a public school is a frightening proposition – it is certainly harrowing enough in a private religious school. Students who are learning to engage their ability to reason often have incomplete and improperly formed opinions and the danger for ineffective teaching creating a hostile (or even violent) response certainly cannot be set aside easily. That being said, I will attempt to counter the argument from the perspective of the educator: students need desperately to learn how to reason for themselves in addition to their need to be aware of world cultures and religions. Not meaning to be flippant, but if teachers are afraid of negative response to their teaching then how do they expect to survive in education? The proposition laid forth is a challenging one but if it is theoretically necessary then the onus is on the educator to rise to the challenge.

Education and Religious Fluency

Stephen C. Ainlay

Times Union

October 11, 2008