My kid has an assignment in Social Studies: “Create Your Own Religion.” (This is a similar assignment, so it is clearly a popular one.) I would like to insert an emoji to represent how I feel about this – but I think I would just end up incoherently inserting all the emojis here, and come across as breathless and frantic.
Yesterday, my daughter was required to create a Religion-Belief-Customs chart for Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. (I was cranky that Sikhism wasn’t included).
Today, she has to come up with her very own Religion, complete with Origins, Beliefs, and Customs.
Much love and solidarity to my teacher colleagues, but it’s assignments like this that make me wonder if people put any thought into the rationale, the purpose, the impact, and the fallout of these exercises.
This also makes me think about the poor representation of minority teachers in many of our schools.
I wonder if teachers who devise such assignments think about their impact on children like my daughter (a half-White, half-desi Muslim). This is a Christian-majority country, where – despite purported secularism – the idea of Christianity as normative has always pervaded society. A “muscular Christianity” that is hostile – to Islam and Judaism in particular – is becoming increasingly popular.
My daughter lives in an increasingly intolerant America, where it is okay for the Commander-in-Chief to express his hatred of our religion. The political and military record of this country is horribly Islamophobic, and grows more so. The cultural representation of Muslims is abysmal.
In this cultural and historical moment, for a White Christian teacher to facilitate a “Create Your Own Religion” assignment for the Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, non-religious, and other students in Grade 6 is simply 🤬😳😱😵🤮😂😒😭. There. Now I’m breathless and frantic.
As my friend and colleague Sally Galman says, “most teachers are not equipped to handle the outcomes of such an assignment well.”
What’s most 😂 about the situation is that somebody is probably congratulating themselves on checking off the “diversity” box by requiring this assignment.
Teachers: not everything that relates to diversity is a respectful, appropriate, non-indoctrinating, egalitarian, useful exercise.
For a religious person like myself, raising a Muslim child in the United States, the last thing I want is a “box of chocolates” approach to religion. Religion isn’t an IKEA table that you put together with a set of components. It is life. It is an entire orientation to life.
In fact, if you wanted to school children in the irrationality and the human-invented approach to religion, you’d require them to … create a religion.
“Mama,” my daughter says, mid-assignment, “should I make it one god or many?”
Imagine how much I am cringing inwardly. If there’s one thing we Muslims take extremely seriously, it’s the Oneness of God. A teacher is asking my kid to try on polytheism or whatever like a Halloween-costume. To me, this sounds like borderline indoctrination.
Minority children, in particular, deal with stigma and ignorance everyday, and struggle with the effort of being different. When she told her class-mates about Eid-al-Adha, my daughter had to explain that the sacrifice entailed was not akin to tossing a person into a volcano to appease an angry god. The very experience of religious thought, choice, and agency, for religious minority children and adolescents, is different from what it is for dominant majority group children.
Exercises that ask children and adolescents (and, I’d add, college students) to “try on” different identities are not experienced the same way by all. Youth who experience symbolic violence against their identities on a regular basis may find such assignments and diversity exercises to be painful and unsettling. I have written about the college narrative of being open to “exploring” other identities is capable of being harmful to minority college students. Universities ask new students to “mix” with students different from themselves and explore new ideas, for example. Yet many non-White students have scarcely had sufficient opportunity to comfortably “nest” within their home communities, while many White Christian students have scarcely ever had non-White, non-Christian friends before – or during – college.
My friend and colleague Saadia Yacoob adds, “The problem is that people don’t see religion as a diversity issue.” This is indeed a problem in the American context, where religion – in comparison to race and ethnicity – is unacknowledged in many diversity circles, and is only beginning to be recognized, and that too not very well. I’ve written about how, in American employment, society, and academia, religion is frequently invisible and therefore neglected and/or handled with profound clumsiness.
Teaching about religion in the schools is not only legal but extremely important. Teaching about religion in such a trivializing manner, however, is 🤬😳😱😵🤮😂😒😭.