How to Teach Religions on World Religion Day

Did you know the third January of each year is World Religion Day? It’s a perfect time to foster tolerance and diversity. We offer tips and advice on navigating religious studies in the classroom.

Religion is important to many

It’s estimated that seven billion of the world’s nearly eight billion people adhere to some kind of religious faith or spiritual belief system.  Religion is an important part of many people’s lives, and to ignore its study is to cut out a major part of our understanding of societies and cultures.  Even for the non-religious person, knowing about the many religious beliefs around us is important to help explain history and the motivations for people’s behavior.

What is religion?

Religion is a set of ideas about our world and our place in it.  It addresses questions such as: Where have I come from?  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  These are all questions raised by children and young people in their formative years.  The non-religious among us also hold a set of beliefs about the world and each individual’s place in it, therefore traditional non-religious worldviews can successfully be studied within the context of religion.  Atheism, for example, is a belief that a supreme being does not exist.  It is an existential belief similar in scope to the way a Christian, Jew or Muslim believes God does exist.

The big three monotheistic religions

Almost everyone is familiar with “the Big Three” faiths — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  But did you know these religions, though they appear quite dissimilar to the casual observer, spring from a common source?  All three trace their foundations back to a BCE figure called Abraham.  He is revered in all three faiths as the originator of a new kind of understanding about God, namely monotheism.  4.3 billion Christians, Muslims and Jews claim Abraham as the beginning of their spiritual lineage.

Eastern religions

Faiths which have their origins in east, south and southeast Asia include Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Confucianism.  Hinduism, which has no specific founder and is believed to have originated in the Indus River valley, is considered among the oldest of the world’s religions with roots and customs dating back more than four millennia.  With about 900 million followers, Hinduism is the third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam.  Like some other oriental religions, Hindus are polytheists — they believe there are multiple gods who perform various functions.  However, Hindus also believe there is one supreme god whose three main forms are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer).

Another popular eastern religion is Buddhism which dates from the 6th or 5th centuries BCE. Buddhism is a non-theistic religion; in other words, adherents have no belief in a creator god.  Buddhism, founded by the sage Siddhartha Gautama, is considered a philosophy and a moral discipline.  It’s thought there are about half a billion Buddhists worldwide.

There are many religions, or perhaps we should more rightly call them philosophical systems, which have their roots in ancient China.  Confucianism is maybe the most well-known.  Confucius (551 to 479 BCE) was a philosopher whose teachings focus on ethics, good behavior, and moral character.  Like some other religions from the Far East, such as Taoism and Shinto, one aspect of Confucianism is ancestor worship.

Other religions

Here are some religions you may not be aware of:

  • Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions of the world.  It is a pre-Islamic religion of ancient Persia (modern Iran)
  • Taoism is also very old.  It is a Chinese philosophy based on the writings of Lao-tzu, advocating humility and religious piety.  Here’s a unique lesson plan related to Taoism from The Art Institute of Chicago
  • Sufism, a mystical branch within Islam, is explored in this KidsKonnect worksheet set about the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi

Folk religions

Some less familiar belief systems which are based upon tradition and culture still exist today in many lands.  Although the practice of folk religions can be influenced by organized religious doctrines, it does not adhere to authorized accepted truths.  Folk religion does not have the organizational structure of established religions, and its practice is often restricted to a certain geographic area.  Many people within the Han ethnic background practice the Chinese folk religion Shenism which includes elements of Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese mythology, and Buddhist beliefs about karma.  This blending of elements from various sources is typical of folk religions.

Folk religions are sometimes called tribal religions when they are practised by a particular people group.

  • The warriors of the Shuar people of South America practice a ritual where the head of a slain enemy is cut off and then shrunk.  It’s believed this traps the soul of the dead enemy inside the shrunken head preventing it from taking revenge against the killer.
  • In remote areas of the world, some ritual ceremonies involve the consumption of mushrooms. This practice is common among the descendants of the Aztecs, Mayans, Toltecs, and other indigenous peoples who live in rural areas of Mexico and Central America.  The mushrooms contain psycho-active elements which can produce wild experiences, including vivid hallucinations, which are mistaken for visions of the supernatural.
  • In Kenya, the Luo people have traditionally worshiped a sacred python named Omieri, which they believe lives in the waters of Lake Victoria but appears during droughts to summon rain to save the crops. 

Teaching about religion vs. religious instruction

Worldwide, the teaching of religion in state schools varies widely.  Many countries have compulsory religious education, some offer parents the option of withdrawing their children from religious education classes, and some state schools have no teaching about religion.  In our Western pluralistic society, there are many shades of religious education in state schools with most (as in the U.S.) avoiding the subject except in the context of social studies curriculum, and others making religious studies compulsory.

The teaching of religion also varies greatly in sectarian and parochial schools.  These schools are free to teach a chosen faith as the “right” one.  Often, sectarian schools seek to instill its brand of religious practice into students, but will also teach students about other faiths in a comparative way.  Some sectarian schools have a greater emphasis on making disciples of a particular faith, while other sectarian schools are satisfied with tolerating all religions.

Ask the experts

You might want to consider inviting faith leaders into your classroom to tell students about their religious beliefs.  If you do this, it is wise to include clergy from at least the “big three” — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — but you may also consider inviting an atheist, agnostic or humanist to speak.  If you live in an urban area, it’s probably not hard to find leaders of Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh communities who would be willing to visit your classroom.  This might be harder in rural areas, so consider connecting online with leaders of faith communities.

Keep parents/guardians informed

Let the parents and guardians of your students know ahead of time what and how religions will be studied.  In this way, parents can nuance what you are teaching in the classroom with their own beliefs.  Some parents may want their child to opt out of those lessons dealing with religion, so be prepared with an appropriate response.  Let your school administrator know what you will be doing with regard to teaching about religions, and follow the school’s guidance on the issue.

Teachers and administrators may find this article from ADL helpful when assessing options for instruction about religions in U.S. public schools.  The National Education Association also offers some advice here.

So, whether you are teaching students that all religions (or no religion) are equally valuable, or that your private/parochial school’s religion is the true one, Help Teaching has many resources you can use, as do many other reliable institutions.

Online Resources

Help Teaching

Here are some of our recommended resources:

Other educational content providers

KidsKonnect.com has countless worksheets and activities on various religions

And more…

The National Geographic Society’s resource library has many interesting resources for teaching about religions including

The BBC has produced six short videos based on Bible stories for elementary-age students.  Each is told with a humorous twist.

The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding offers a set of resources for community educators called American Muslims 101.

Teach about religions can be an exciting and rewarding experience for the teacher and the student. 

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