Despite Controversy, World Religion Teacher Tells It Like It Is

religions_wheel_crimsonI may have a new BFF — or, at the very least, a great new source for my book. Jim Morrison (no, not that one) has been teaching World Religion at a high school in Red Wing, Minn., for 17 years. He's not a pious man himself (to say the least), so his classes are comparative, historical and incredibly eye-opening. His students love him. Christian fundamentalists in the community? Well, they don't. But they do tolerate him. And that's something, dammit.

Jim recently began his own blog — Teach Not Preach — which I like very much. All his posts are interesting. (This week he wrote about lesbians, so that should pique your interest.) But my favorite post is this one, in which he recalls the rather hilarious frenzy that broke out after his World Religion course was introduced in 1996. School administrators called an emergency meeting where 22 local ministers came together to debate the merits of Jim's class — and whether it violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Jim writes:

About fifteen minutes into the discussion tempers started to flare. One pastor yelled “Why can’t you just tell the students what other religions believe, why do you have to make them think!?”  The room spontaneously erupted into a verbal brawl. A young pastor sitting behind me leaned forward and sarcastically whispered in my ear “It would be horrible if schools made students think, Jim.”  I smiled. It was clear he was on my side.

Despite the conservative Christian presence in Red Wing, Jim isn't afraid to urge  his students to "understand the difference between religious dogma and factual information based on physical evidence and research." For instance, he teaches that "resurrection stories and virgin birth stories are a dime a dozen in the ancient world and are not viewed as historical truth by everyone." As a result, he says, he was "accused of injecting my own ideas into the course, misinterpreting the Bible, and generally being offensive to Christians."

But, in the end, education won out. And, for 17 years, students have been thanking him for it. Check out these excerpts taken from a bunch of end-of-semester essays Jim recently received. Here's a sample. (Olivia's is my favorite.)

Coming from a Christian home with many Christian friends, many told me that taking World Religions would not be good because “all Morrison does is bash the Bible.” Well, they were wrong. In no way did I find what you said offensive toward my religion or my personal beliefs….Many fear that their little Christian boys and girls are being corrupted by exposure to other religions, but to me, that talk is just silly and is nonsense. Exposure to an idea that is different from yours isn’t corruption of the mind, it is really the expansion of the mind. Through out the semester I have learned about so many interesting ideas, and I really wish the course was a year-long class.

— Nick

The necessity of a world religion class has never been more obvious as it was the night I was studying for my Christianity test and I remarked to my mother how little I knew about Protestants despite being one. How she responded made me a little sad. “You’re not a Protestant, you’re a Lutheran,” she told me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she didn’t know that Lutherans are a Protestant sect.

— Olivia

Islam was the biggest shock to me. I thought they were all about blowing stuff up and terrorism. But learning about them made me think differently about them. I find it amazing how they can stick to such a strict prayer schedule and honor their religion every day. I will now think differently whenever I see a Muslim.

— Andy

One lesson among many that I will take from this class is how important it is to understand people and their beliefs before passing judgment on them. It is so very easy to have preconceived notions about a person/group without truly understanding them.

— Brian

I absolutely loved this class…but I’m not sure if my mom likes the fact that I took it. I think she dislikes the fact that I began to be more open about my personal beliefs, which differ from hers. Because of this I’m not allowed to talk to my little sister (eleven years old) about religion at all! I got in trouble for telling my sister “false ideas,” ideas that were not exactly pro-Christian. Despite this, I’m happy I took the class. Yeah for critical thinking!

— Sarah

Don't you wish you could clone this guy and put him in your kids' high school?