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February 2002 - Issue No. #45 p.14-17

A Rationale for Teaching Religion in English Class

by Carolyn Obara

Tokyo Metropolitan University

Religion - A Taboo Topic

There are several topics which are traditionally considered impolite, and thus mildly taboo, for casual conversation in America. These include personal income, personal religious beliefs and politics. People tend to have strong feelings about these topics making rational discussion difficult and often leading to hurt feelings, or worse. Nevertheless, the latter two topics are the focus of much public debate, whether explicitly in the case of politics or implicitly in the case of religion.

In this article, I would like to compare my observations of the attitudes toward religion in Japan with what I know of those in America, and to make a case for more inclusion of this topic as it relates to world issues within the English curriculum at university level.

Contrasts - Japan and America

The United States is said to be the most religiously-oriented of the developed nations. Likewise, there is scarcely a country in the non-communist developing world in which the public influence of religion is not evident. In contrast, according to a majority of my students in the second-year English discussion class which examines global and personal issues (Oral Communication IIIB), the average Japanese is not much interested in this part of life. An American observer may think this assertion is a little too emphatic since the average Japanese appears to be routinely attuned to the spiritual in ways that Americans usually are not.

For example, everyone in Japan says "Itadakimasu" before eating. I've been told it is impolite not to do so, making this practice somewhat analogous to saying a prayer (or grace) before meals. Only the most devout believers do this on all eating occasions in America. Furthermore, most Japanese make a habit of attending their local shrine at the New Year and asking for blessings at times of entrance exams and other important personal events.

These customs are much more common than the equivalent public practices in America, with the exception of the most religiously observant individuals. There is also the recurrent public issue of the Prime Minister's decision whether or not to publicly worship at Yasukuni Shrine where the nation's war dead are honored.

Japanese students see nothing strange about observing these customs while at the same time claiming to be non-religious. They say these actions are part of Japanese culture and one need not believe in God or a religion in order to observe them. Yet, at least one academic claims that the majority (over 70%) of Japanese are 'latently religious' because, despite having no particular religious affiliation, they inherently feel that 'religious sentiment is important' (Matsumoto, p. 26, in Tamaru and Reid, 1996).

This assessment rings true when one hears students say things like "I don't believe in any religion, but when I die I want to go to heaven." However, it is my feeling that ignorance or denial of the religious nature of their own heritage, as well as of the world's major religious beliefs, makes it extremely difficult for students to understand the full significance of many global events. Their disinclination or inability to explain their feelings and actions from a religious perspective also makes it more difficult for the Japanese to effectively assert themselves with regard to moral and ethical issues at the international level. It would seem that any school dealing with cross-cultural studies could not avoid some attention to this subject.

Background Knowledge

Aiming to give students a background knowledge of religious issues is problematic due to the preferences of the majority of the American and Japanese public that government services, including education, be secular in nature. One might ask if knowledge of religion is really necessary in order to deal with the moral and ethical issues of a complex modern world.

Wouldn't a background in philosophy, which deals with the issues of human existence and purpose in the abstract, be sufficient? Philosophy, in fact, is widely offered and reportedly increasingly popular at both public and private universities and colleges. (Ozawa, 2000) Religion, on the other hand, tends to be viewed in a much more personal light and is not easily comprehended in the abstract, though if taught, it should be from a determinedly neutral standpoint.

The moral and religious branches of philosophy entertain questions such as, "Do(es) God(s) exist?" and "Do people have free will or are the actions of human beings determined by some outside power(s) or influence(s)?" Religions, likewise, offer answers to many philosophical questions, but focus on the question of man's relationship with a God or gods and with other people. They tend to have some kind of hierarchical administration and often a set of written beliefs (or dogma) which are supposed to influence the behavior of their followers.

Religion and Religious Awareness

It is sometimes difficult for the average person to confidently distinguish a philosophy from a religion, as in the case of Confucianism, a philosophy which has greatly influenced Japanese thought. Even Shinto, which most people today would confidently classify as a religion, 'did not originate as a self-conscious tradition' and 'was not originally a system of moral principals or philosophical doctrines. When it began to express itself as a system of thought it had to borrow Chinese terms and ideas, both Confucian and Buddhist.' (Matsumoto, p. 15, in Tamaru and Reid,1996).

Even for those who consider themselves non-religious, the influence of the most prevalent local religion cannot be avoided in most cultures. Christianity tends to permeate American culture as Buddhism, Confuciansim and Shintoism permeate Japanese culture. The mores of these religions are generally accepted implicitly even by unbelievers or the non-devout.

Overt practitioners of less widely accepted faiths tend to feel more comfortable in large urban areas with others who share their beliefs, or they may seek isolation and anonymity. Nevertheless, no major religion in either country expects any official favoritism or fears public rebuke in recent times.

Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state has been sanctioned and consistently upheld by the law since the early days of American democracy and, in Japan, the Meiji restoration (except for the promotion of State Shinto prior to and during World War II).

Teachers at public schools, in particular, must take care not to display any religious bias in the classroom. In America, this is especially difficult at the time of important Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, but is aided by the increasing secularization of these and other formerly religious events. In addition, many teachers now make great efforts to include the religious beliefs of other significant religions in the celebrations of these quasi-national holidays. For example, the Jewish Hannukah and the secular African-American festival of Kwanzaa2 are now commonly celebrated at the winter holiday season formerly known only as Christmas/New Year in American schools. This secularization of public education has done nothing to dampen private religious beliefs in America.

Why Japanese Aren't Religious

In contrast, according to Mr. Toshimaru Ama, a Meiji Gakuin professor of history who has written several books about Japanese views on religion, the apparent indifference toward religion in Japan can be traced back to the religious policies of the Meiji government which tried to effectively separate religion and government. He asserts that the Meiji government had wanted to make Shinto the state religion, but also wanted to have "freedom of religion. On the surface, it abandoned the idea of a state religion." (Ozawa, 2000). This created a split between public actions and private beliefs in the minds of many people which has lead to the lack of religious commitment in the average Japanese today. In an interview with the Daily Yomiuri, he states some of the reasons he thinks that Japanese do not tend to identify personally with any religion:

  • Public display of one's private beliefs was likely to get one in trouble with the government authorities in the past, so people settled on being irreligious.
  • Japanese may practice various customs from several religions and, therefore, may be unable to state what they believe in a dogmatic sense. They do not think of themselves as religious believers although they participate in religious rituals.
  • The practice of public reverence centering upon the Emperor was embraced and then disgraced due to the events of World War II. Since then, many older Japanese have lost their sense of a religious center.
  • Younger people no longer take comfort in the promises of life after death in gokuraku or heaven. Neither do the tales of the traditional religions seem scientifically believable to them.
  • Since the events associated with Aum Supreme Truth and other cults whose bizarre practices have been reported in the news, religion seems to increasingly inspire feelings of danger rather than of comfort or enlightenment.

Regarding the last point, reading about constantly warring religiously affiliated factions in places such as Ireland, Israel and Afghanistan does nothing to promote the assertion that religious belief is an asset. One writer (speaking primarily about religious conflict in India) explains that 'religion is not the causative, but rather the instrumental factor in communal conflict. Religion is politicized by cunning manipulators who wish to have political power or control over economic resources. It is an excellent entry point for appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, appeal to the emotions has always been better responded to than appeal to the intellect.' (Barnabas, p. 2)

I might add that the appeal is not only to 'the masses' but also to the well-educated but philosophically naive younger generations. Some lament that while traditional religious beliefs are ignored by the education system, the number of new religions and cults in Japan has been increasing. This growth in fringe religions may indicate that many young people are not entirely satisfied with the societal message that educational success with its material rewards is all important. (Kirkpatrick, 2000; Tamaru and Reid, 1996; Ozawa, 2000)

Why Teach Religion and Philosophy

In the previously cited interview, Mr. Ama, while admitting that a state of widespread non-religious affiliation exists in modern Japan, indicates that he does not believe it is a typical state with regard to the human condition. He says, 'I believe that human beings cannot live unless they have a reason (to do so), which is a troublesome human characteristic. We fear meaninglessness the most.' In addition, he asserts that people need some kind of belief system to account for 'various unreasonable things in their lives. They may manage to understand a problem each time they face one, but some may also want to find an absolute answer to help them explain life consistently.' Religion can be criticized for being unscientific and illogical '(but) dogmas or ways of thinking that go beyond the boundaries of common sense are developed because common sense cannot save people. For example, such questions as "Why do humans die?" or "What is the purpose of human life?" cannot be answered with common sense.' (Ozawa, 2000)

The existential questions which lead people to look outside of common sense for meaningful answers have been dealt with under the name of philosophy at the university level. As to the question, 'wouldn't knowledge of philosophy alone be sufficient for the educated person?', my answer would be a qualified 'yes'. It would usually be enough on the academic level, but not on the personal level. Furthermore, as popular as the study of philosophy may become, it will never be studied by a large percentage of the entire population, whereas 'the idea of gods is . . . older than any [faith]. It seems to have been an essential concept in virtually every human community known to history. Our own time is exceptional in this regard.' (Teichman and Evans, p. 19, 1991)

From the time we are children, we find it entirely natural to believe in monsters, ghosts and the mysterious events which haunt our dreams. As we grow older, believing ourselves more mature and rational, we often turn our backs on these 'childish' beliefs, but some rely on superstitions or the belief in extra-terrestrial beings and similarly unlikely phenomena, while others turn to their culture's traditional religions in a passionate and very personal way. Philosophy does not have the same mass influence or appeal.

If there is something of a spiritual nature lacking in the lives of many people, the worrisome susceptibility of even educationally elite youth to cults such as Aum Shinrikyo may be their lack of knowledge of ideas from the past. Hearing the aphorisms of some guru, those who are unschooled in philosophy and religion may be greatly impressed. But those who recognize a spiritual leader's eloquent words as being plagiarized from ancient scriptures are likely to be more cautious in their evaluation.

However, saving people from cults is a minor reason for including philosophy/religion in the curriculum. A greater benefit is the boost that it gives to critical thinking. While critical thinking can be taught as a rather sophisticated set of techniques, real growth in reason-power comes through engagement with the ideas and problems that have challenged great thinkers of the past.

By scrutinizing the views of wise (and some perhaps, not so wise) men, we are more likely to garner the will to examine our own long-held beliefs. (Kirkpatrick, p. 144, 2001)

Why Teach Religion in English Class?

Since philosophy is often (and religion sometimes) taught at the university level in the ordinary curriculum, one might ask why it should also be part of the English curriculum. My own views are:

  • Not everyone studies philosophy, but an element of religion/philosophy is an integral part of many global issues such as abortion, the AIDS epidemic and the nuclear threat. Teachers who hope to foster intelligent thinking and discussion might be prepared to also give a little background information concerning the significance of religious philosophy with regard to such issues.
  • Students who would not discuss these topics in Japanese often do not mind or even welcome the opportunity to do so in English. In addition, a student who visits another country and is ignorant of the local beliefs and non-conversant about his own beliefs may be somewhat disadvantaged in some social situations.
  • Students who may be able to discuss these topics in their native language may need the relevant vocabulary to do so in English.
  • Students who may be familiar only with their own religion or only with Asian religions, need a broad overview of other major religions.
  • Students who think they know about religion often have erroneous ideas such as "Christianity means Catholic" or "Catholicism is the name of a religion".

The Five Major World Religions

A teacher who wishes to familiarize her students with religion on a broad, non-sectarian basis must decide how much of the vast amount of information available can and should be presented. Since my discussion class, Oral Communication IIIB, is not a religion or philosophy class the decision was made to teach only a very general overview of the five main world religions---Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. These are the religions most in the news from a global standpoint.

A case could be made for teaching only Asian religions or for teaching each religion as it appears in the current news, the latter approach being a little haphazard. I chose to teach about these five religions for a portion of each of three class periods at the beginning of the course. The students filled out a worksheet (below) and did a question/answer drill which answered questions such as: What are believers of each religion called? What is the name of their building of worship? Who founded the religion? and when? What percentage of the world's population believe in this religion? and so on.

Six Approaches to Teaching Religion

If the teacher is allowed to teach an entire course about religion/philosophy, more philosophically interesting topics can be discussed and much more information given. Following is a list of six possible approaches outlined by Robert Kirkpatrick who teaches a year-long elective course open to all students and the general public at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto. He states that such a course could be taught in several ways:

  1. A factual approach where students are given objective information about [a topic] in the various religions and philosophies
  2. A historical approach explaining the circumstances surrounding the birth of the religion/philosophy and how it has fared since its founding
  3. A biographical approach that studies the lives of the founders of the religious philosophies
  4. A comparative approach that looks for differences and similarities in the religions and philosophies
  5. A sociological approach that delves into the social effects of each belief
  6. A psychological approach that primarily looks at the effect that the belief system has on individuals

There is another approach not mentioned by Mr. Kirkpatrick, the holy book as literature approach which aims to teach the relevant scriptures strictly from a literary point of view.


If I were to teach a year-long course of this type, a combination of the comparative and literary approaches appeals to me. It is very interesting to note, for example, how many versions of the Golden Rule there are in the world's religions (9), including one presumably atheistic version (those who do not believe that any god exists). To quote three of them, according to The People's Almanac, 1975, p. 1314:

The Bible quotes Jesus Christ saying "Therefore all things whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

According to Buddhism, "Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful." (Udana-Varga 5, 18)

A Dissenter's View: "Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same."

Such a widely dispersed bit of spiritual advice, even in jest, would seem to be something resembling truth, an ideal (in company with justice) that many instinctively seek. It may be one indication that, as Barnabas asserts 'man is an incomplete identity as long as he does not relate himself to the other, for God created us and put us in the world with others. Man is not an isolated self, and it is in dialogue that he achieves his self-realization and makes self-discovery.' (Barnabas, p. 3) I am always delighted when even a little of this self-discovery occurs in one of my English classes.

Understanding World Religions

Buddhism - Christianity - Hinduism
Islam - Judaism

  1. How do you say this religion in English?
  2. When was it founded?
  3. Where were its first followers?
  4. Who founded it?
  5. What do we call people who believe in this religion?
  6. How many people believe in this religion?
  7. What percent of the world's population is this?
  8. Where do most believers live?
  9. What do these people believe happens after death?
  10. What is the name of the building where they worship?
  11. What is the name of their holy book?
  12. What is the name of GOD in this religion?
  13. Please explain one of their important holidays.
  14. What else do you know about this religion?


  • Barnabas, Bina "Interfaith Dialogue: A Layman Reflects" Unpublished Manuscript, circa 1995.
  • Go Global: A global education resource book for language teachers written by the English Dept. of Tokiwamatsu Gakuen (Tokyo) Kagensha:Tokyo, 1998.
  • Kirkpatrick, Robert "Teaching Philosophy and Religion" Content in Language Education: Looking at the Future Proceedings of the JALT CUE Conference 2000 at Keisen University, May 20-21, 2000, pp. 144-148.
  • Ozawa, Harumi (1) "Why do Japanese view themselves as irreligious?" The Daily Yomiuri, May 16. 2000, P. 7 (B).
  • Ozawa, Harumi (2) "Young people's interest in spirituality grows" The Daily Yomiuri , May 16, 2000, P. 7 (B).
  • Tamaru, N. and Reid, D., Eds. Religion in Japanese Culture: Where Living Traditions Meet a Changing World "Introduction" by Matsumato, Shigeru. Kodansha, International: Tokyo, 1996.
  • Teichman, J. and Evans, K.C. Philosophy: A Beginner's Guide Oxford: United Kingdom, 1991.
  • Wallechinsky, D. and Wallace, I. The People's Almanac. Doubleday and Co: New York, 1975.

Carolyn Obara (part-time EFL instructor at Keio University and Bunka Joshi Daigaku, Tokyo). Contact address: 25-12 Ueno-machi, Hachioji-shi, Tokyo 192-0902 E-mail:


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