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On Religious Texts in Public Schools


At Issue: An Orange County attorney and Costa Mesa High School alum is pushing for a state ballot allowing the use of the Bible as a literary text in public schools. Do you think religious texts can be effectively taught in public school as strictly literary works without incorporating doctrinal aspects?

Response: Why read about a cup of coffee instead of tasting it yourself? The satisfaction is in the drinking. In Zen we emphasize direct experience rather than words, even if the words have been deemed scripture or sutras. This does not deny that scholarship is of value, but sharply critiques its overemphasis and recognizes its limitations. If the purpose of proposals to teach the Bible in public schools were literary and not indoctrination, why would they not also include the Tao Te Ching, the Qur’an, the Shobogenzo or writings from the Native American traditions indigent to our continent? From my own experience teaching classes in comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton, I know that texts from the world’s religious traditions can and should be taught as part of a well-rounded education. Teachers at the elementary and secondary school level would need a curriculum designed with community participation, specialized training in the world’s religious traditions and clear guidelines about principles of interfaith dialogue, diversity and first amendment religious liberties. More to the point, it can be very difficult to find any kind of reading that many students will actually do.

– Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Published: January 16, 2004