Should Public Colleges Teach Religious Practices?

The Yazılıkaya sanctuary in Turkey, with the twelve gods of the underworld


Marshall Poe wrote an article in the Mar 7, 2014 Atlantic Magazine: “Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students.” He’s not talking about religious studies classes—although I don’t think he’d be opposed to teaching them too—but of teaching religious practice by clergy. His epiphany came upon becoming the director of undergraduate studies at a university, where he got to know many college students on a personal level.

What he found “was that many of the students I talked to were disappointed, confused, and lost.” He found alcoholics and drug addicts, as well as depressives and the suicidal.  He also found out the university had no help for these students; counseling was limited and he could not contact parents by federal law. What could he do? In the past he had been helped by a “spiritual program.” He doesn’t tell us what the practice was, perhaps an Eastern religion or meditative technique. The practice help relieve his suffering. Perhaps teaching religious practice to students would help them too.

And what should be taught? To answer this question Poe distinguishes between knowledge-that and knowledge-how. The former refers to religious claims that something happened like Jesus rose from the dead, Mohammed received the Koran from Allah, or an angle showed Joseph Smith some gold plates. These have no place in a secular university. But religions also consist of knowledge-how, prescriptions for living. He specifically mentions Buddhism which focuses on eliminating suffering and transforming character. Furthermore teaching how to do something is common in the university, in the fine and performing arts, engineering, dentistry and other subjects.

Students should not be pressured to join any of these religions, Poe says, but simply informed about the practice of them. He is open to atheists talking about living well, or the teaching of meditation techniques or happiness research. The main deficiency in American higher educational curriculum is that it doesn’t teach students “what to do when they feel confused, alone, and scared.” It doesn’t teach them how to live well.


Poe appears genuinely concerned about his students, and there are a lot of damaged students in college. (There are many horrific persons in academia, including members of the faculty and administration!)  Religious practice would help some students, but so too would vigorous exercise. Should we then inform and/or promote religious practices or the benefits of exercise? Universities are in the business of informing, although promoting tends toward indoctrination.

It is true that even the atheist Daniel Dennett has opined that teaching the strength and weaknesses of all religions may be advisable. And the atheist Sam Harris has argued for the benefits of non-theistic meditation. I could tolerate the teaching of religion in public colleges—I have taught world religions myself. And meditation, happiness studies and the benefits of exercise seem fine too.  But Poe says more: “I’m talking about having imams, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other clerics teach the practice of their faiths. In college classrooms. To college students. For credit.”


I disagree vehemently. We can inform students about religion in the standard curriculum of religious studies. But please don’t populate public the universities with clerics. They already populate many private universities. Some of the worst people I have ever known in the academy draped themselves in religious garb and religious ideas. I’ve known supposedly religious people who were oppressive tyrants, pathological liars, and pedophiles. Yes I’ve known good clergy too, but there are no good reasons to think the clergy are better prepared to teach students how to live well than anyone else.  And if you believe that go to a religious affiliated college!

So teach students about the role of meditation or exercise in stress management, or what studies of happiness reveal, but teaching religious practice is not a salve for the modern world. And which religious practices do we teach? Should we teach students to practice self-flagellation during outbreaks of the plague? To not have sex till after the ceremony? To feel guilty about sex? To beat their children for misbehaving? To hate homosexuals? To have wives submit to their husbands? To force women to wear burkas? To not dance? To not drink? To have children even if they don’t want to? To give money to their church each week? To give money to their church when they die? To not eat meat on Fridays or touch a pigskin? To not distribute condoms in Africa and condemn thousands to death? To …?

Such behaviors form a large part of religious practice. Sure there are some good elements of religious practice, but open your history book for an honest look at the outcome of centuries of religious practice. Yes, students and many others are lost in modernity– in its consumerism, its capitalism, its materialism, and its environmental degradation. But we will best help students and our descendants live well by disseminating the best information from the natural and social sciences about how this is done, not by promoting mostly archaic practices.

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4 thoughts on “Should Public Colleges Teach Religious Practices?

  1. I would seem as if we are dealing with a couple of different issues here.

    First is the issue of a “Public” or “State” University. Certainly there are enough private and religious universities if a student is interested in being taught university subjects from a Jewish, Fundamentalist Christian, or Catholic perspective or the practice of a certain religion. My own theological tradition has been against “prayer” or “religion” being taught in public schools (in the United States) for 200 years.

    Second, it would seem many topics in religion could be taught in a state university especially if one were trying to consider applying academic or scientific studies to religious topics. Classes like “Literary genres in the Hebrew Scriptures”, “The Historical Mohammad”, or “The Social History of early Christianity and the Emerging Christian Scriptures” would seem possible university classes. Personally, I think of the work of Atheists or Agnostics like Bart D. Ehrman at the University of North Carolina when I think of these types of courses.

    Finally, the original author puts the question in the context of helping students who seem confused, searching, or depressed. While the author might be at a state university where little help is available for students, it would seem there are opportunities (both official and parallel to the university) for faculty to help students who seem a bit lost without recommending a course to someone. If a student claims to be depressed, I might suggest official councilor through student services, but not taking a counseling course. Or if a student was searching spiritually, I might suggest Newman Center, Jewish Chabad, Islamic House, or something else, but not a class in world religions. Finally, if the student seemed a bit depressed or sluggish, I might suggest the student rec center but not a class in Kinesiology.

  2. Perhaps the biggest problem with Poe’s article is that he proposal to have professors teach religion is redundant. Not only can students attend parochial religious schools, but even if they go to a public school, they will encounter a proliferation of student-led religious organizations that can connect them with whatever religious instruction they want. If you’re going to cause all the problems and controversies that would come from professors teaching religion at public schools, you have to doing so would be better for students than what they have now. He hasn’t done that.

  3. I completely agree with your well-reasoned statement. And professors already teach “religious studies” and “world religions” and similar classes.

  4. Mr. Chancellor: Each point is well put. Point one; no prayer taught in public schools; yes. Point two, their already are classes on religion all over the curriculum, in addition to those mentioned by including philosophy, psychology, sociology,and biology of religion. Finally the last point about a class is a great one. Counseling, religion if that’s their thing, or exercise. thanks for the comments

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