On Teaching Religion: A Symposium

Payne, Rodger. “On Teaching Religion: A Symposium,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65, no.4 (Winter 1997): 745-761.

Rodger Payne constructs his essay as a “conversation” based on the model of the Socratic symposium. He envisions a dialogue between himself (in the third person), Thomas Jefferson, and John Harvard on the relevance and appropriateness of studying religion in American colleges and universities, particularly at those institutions that are publicly funded. Jefferson advocates the separation of church and state. Harvard argues that religion can teach the moral values necessary for good citizens. Payne responds to both by explaining the contemporary situation regarding religion and higher education at public universities. He claims that he teaches about religion as opposed to teaching religion. The study of religion is important, Payne suggests, because it has profoundly affected and influenced humanity throughout the ages. Payne disagrees that there is a natural morality to which all religions subscribe and, therefore, he does not support the teaching of a general concept of religion. Instead, he encourages the study of religions in their particular forms, recognizing the importance of believers partaking in this process. Payne sees the classroom as a public forum where ideas should be expressed freely and one where the teacher models discourse that allows students to transcend their personal beliefs in order to engage in creative dialogue. (KH)