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By Poonam Dass, Sumaita Hasan, and Jason Lalljee
THE SEPARATION of church and state means that religion remains a sensitive subject in school environments, given that faith (or a lack thereof) is not something that is easily extricable from a student’s identity. High school, however, has proved to be a time-honored stage of personal change and growth, exposing teenagers to a multitude of fresh influences within a learning environment that introduces more complex intellectual and cultural forces―religion being a part of that. We conducted a survey to see just how much experiences with religion at high school (both curricular and extra-curricular) influence the students of Townsend Harris.
HOW HARRISITES IDENTIFY RELIGIOUSLY
In a survey involving 150 students, roughly 10.7% said they identified as “very religious,” 32.7% said they were “moderately religious,” 32% said they were “somewhat religious,” and 24.7% said they were “not at all religious.”
More than 50% of the students claimed that they were religious because of their families, while 42% identified as being religious on their own, regardless of the influence of their families.
Senior Stephen Mai said, “My parents aren’t religious. It’s something I personally pursue; it’s out of a sense of duty, it’s habitual. I’ve attended church every Sunday for ten years and I find it odd not to go.”
In particular, we were interested in exploring how school affects student religious perspectives. There are the ways that certain courses could challenge or deepen personal beliefs, but there’s also the way that interacting with students can influence others.
In regards to school influences, Stephen said, “It’s hard to reconcile religious texts with science and academia because of the lack of believable stories that most religions have. THHS has made me more open towards considering a more scholarly perspective on religion.”
Other students had various perspectives on the topic, which we will explore in the below sections.
CURRICULUM RESULTS IN REEVALUATION OF RELIGIOUS BELIEFS
Though a secular education may not seek to broaden student perspectives on their own religion, studying the history of religions is essential to a well-rounded education. In the process of conducting this study, many students report questioning their own personal beliefs. When asked if high school classes expanded their perspectives on religion, numerous students suggested that the curricula presented from multiple departments has the tendency to lead them to question their religious texts.
Senior Florebencia Fils-Aime recalled, “One moment that allowed me to reflect where I stood on the topic of religion was in A.P. French. I decided to be against religious institutions because people have used religion for unjust reasons. People have used religion to justify war, slavery, the destruction of different cultures, and attacking groups of people. However, some aspects of religion I like is how it tries to bring order and how people use it to get through harsh times.”
Though students can be led to question their beliefs in science courses and social studies classes, one of the key areas of controversy in Townsend Harris involves the humanities seminar, where students read, discuss, and write about key stories from the Bible as part of the Western literary canon.
“I think the fact that we are forced to read the Bible in senior year is alright. In theory, we’re supposed to only view the text as a work of literature and not a religious text, but in practice I think it is difficult for the other students who have been brought up with the Bible as a religious text,” said Senior Christina Louie.
Assistant Principal of Humanities Rafal Olechowski believes that religious texts are an essential part of any school’s curricula, although measures should be taken to make sure the texts are taught effectively and respectfully.
“Reading religious texts doesn’t work especially well in the seminar because students haven’t been taught what the Bible is without ever reading it themselves, and those who have read it by themselves have the influence of religious backgrounds and organizations,” he commented. “When you bring it into a secular environment we’re working under the assumption that they’re just texts.”
He added, “I think that we need a specialized class, or even unit that teaches tolerance and objective thinking related to religious texts… In order to study the lives of others, you need to approach them correctly.”
Some students revealed that they felt at a disadvantage when reading the Bible.
Senior Janet Hernandez expressed, “it’s strange to read [the Bible] as just a book. I see it as a religious text. When the teachers ask questions on the ideas established in the text I feel like they’re challenging my beliefs.”
Senior Triparna Banik questioned, “How can we read the Bible, but not the Vedas? I feel at a disadvantage in the discussions because I grew up in a Hindu household so when the class is talking about a verse, I feel lost. I look forward to learning about different religions because even the books we read freshman year have elements of the Bible. It is a matter of being exposed to the Bible early on so that by senior year, everyone has a chance to understand and have elaborate discussions on the text.”
However, humanities teacher Raquel Chung believes that “students who are familiar with the stories have a hard time reading the text as a story. Non-Christians are more comfortable and have an easier time looking at it as a story, not through a religious perspective.”
She continued, “I ask the class to approach the story as a work of fiction because a lot of students read creation myths, like in freshman year, and they don’t see it as a religious text. They should leave ‘the religious baggage’ outside the door. I had a student last year, who decided to look at it [the Bible] with the perspective of a character. She copared the character of Jesus to the characters in the Quran. By treating the stories in that manner, she was able to distance herself from the religious texts.”
Atheist students also shared their experiences on the Biblical readings. Senior Stephanie Howe noted, “Reading about other religions is fascinating in class, especially during A.P. World, but during humanities, when we read about Jesus and how he was a divine figure, [it] was kind of awkward. I respect other people’s religions, but the fact that I was being questioned on the details felt like I was at a disadvantage.”
Christina added, “the curriculum allows atheists to be exposed to various religions, in what is supposed to be an objective manner.”
Senior Prabhjot Shergill stated, “I was always pretty skeptical about my faith; nevertheless, learning about other religions helped verify the skepticism that I had. A.P. World History was where we learned about a lot of different cultures and groups of people that have come and gone. Learning biology, chemistry, and physics, all of which had research and time put behind them, would conflict with religious ideas I was told to be true.”
Social studies teacher Aliza Sherman hopes that AP World “broadens political and religious perspectives, not to change their [students’] own, but to understand others, and that this should foster a sense of respect.”
Regarding the curriculum, she stated, “I find that students who are of a religious faith have misconceptions about their faith. [Students] will think that Catholic and Christians are different, but really Catholics are Christians. They’ll compartmentalize them based on opinions more than facts. Every religion has an aspect that doesn’t sound logical and students shouldn’t mock this. For example, some kids don’t understand why cows are so sacred in Hinduism, but then you can ask how a virgin has a baby in Christianity. There are some things that are not logical, that can’t be proven scientifically but if they approach these things with respect, it can be a very enlightening discussion.”
Sophomore Anil Singh added, “Honestly THHS is a school where logic and questioning seems to be the top priority and it seems to destroy your beliefs. But in some ways it’s good because it makes you very aware and forces you to understand your beliefs even more.”
“In a school like ours that has a strong Humanities foundation—in a country like ours—the model of what a secular humanist society should look like is one where students learn a wide variety of religious texts. Not just the texts that their parents believe in and what they were brought up with, but what they don’t know,” Mr. Olechowski concluded.
POLITICAL PERSPECTIVES VERSUS RELIGIOUS IDEALS
Beyond academics in the class, the social school environment has led students to question the nature of orthodox beliefs, as many began to form political views separate from what their religions preached.
Their interactions with the LGBT community led many students to question their conventional religious ideals.
“I do support the LGBT community. I never associated my support with my religion, although I do know that homosexuality is considered a sin in Islam,” stated senior Komal Siddique.
Senior Sarah DeFillipo added, “Although heterosexuality is the norm in Islam, that doesn’t mean that I should judge or reproach people by their sexual orientation or gender identity. I think it’s a major sin to make someone feel unwanted or subhuman. You can be conservative or liberal, but when it comes to people, you treat them like people—anything else is unacceptable.”
Similarly, junior Fatema Haidery stated, “Growing up, I was constantly surrounded by family members, some of whom held very aggressive views concerning topics like same sex marriage. Since they were really the only influences I had as a child, they shaped my own views to match their own.”
She continued, “However, while I didn’t have large influences outside of family, school has been one of the very few places in which I’ve encountered people with different views. I feel that it’s a safe environment to discuss issues concerning gender and sexuality. These people and their perspectives have caused me to become more open minded. I’m much more liberal than I was five years ago.”
Junior Sarah Gafur, leader of THHS’ Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) chapter stated, “Usually, religion and sexuality are topics that don’t go hand-in-hand unless it’s one condemning the other. As youth, following a religion is hard in itself as we come to find out more and more about ourselves. However, realizing your sexuality is one that goes against the unspoken or spoken rules in your religion definitely has students questioning their ability to stay faithful to their religion. When it comes to me personally, I don’t practice religion but I do dabble in both Islam and Christianity because of my parents. My club members are for the most part not religious, some by choice and some because they weren’t raised with religion.”
Junior Nicholas Mohan added, “I think that the LGBT community and the religious community have always been at odds with each other because the main opponents of LGBT rights are usually religiously conservative people. You can’t blame the LGBT community for not wanting to be devoted to belief systems that don’t believe in them.”
High school has a polarizing effect on students’ religious beliefs. 15% of students felt their overall religious views strengthened after starting high school, 14% believed their views weakened, and the other 71% felt their views remained the same.
Julian recalled that he was not very religious before attending THHS.
“In freshman year, I was trying to look for myself and figure out my values. I was led to trying to find a church and Seekers, the Christian fellowship club at THHS, gave me more of an idea. Then, a fellow senior invited me to volunteer at a day camp and that’s when I started going to that church.”
Junior Harleen Singh Karir said he “grew up a devout Sikh” because of his parents’ influences. He added, “The values of Sikhism, such as selfless service to society, were really important to me until about last year. Lately, because of the school Election Simulation (largely Donald Trump), I’ve become a lot less religiously narrow-minded and I believe that service to the community is more impactful than just praying.”
In terms of the school workload, he stated, “I often get a lot less time to visit the temple due to extra work from school, so in turn I’ve become less religious in terms of praying, but I keep my values and remember the teachings of my Gurus.”
Junior Muhamed Bicic said, “I believe school has the potential to affect the way someone, including myself, views religion. You are exposed to people who have different beliefs and are sometimes forced to compare the two. When this happens, you try to put some sense into why your religion hasn’t accepted a principle that another has.”
Senior Adrienne Cabral mentioned that she attended a Catholic middle school where she already started to question religion. “I wasn’t very religious to begin with freshman year. I started seriously questioning Catholicism a few years before that, and I was more open to hearing about other religions since I only knew one my whole life. Classes such as Humanities make me look at how others view their faith. I wouldn’t say that learning about more religions has made me less religious, but I have to admit that occasionally, I’ll come across something on social media that really makes me stop and think about the validity of some organized religions.”
Fatema concluded, “Religion definitely gives you a list of what is right and wrong and school has encouraged me to not necessarily challenge these principles, but rather give them deeper thought. There is a difference between what you are told to do based on religion and what rules you choose to uphold based on the values you’ve acquired through other experiences.”