Firstly, the exceptions that, to my way of thinking, allows for some religion in schools:
- Defining what would normally be seen as religious rituals as culture (I'll get onto this in another post as I think it bears some thinking about).
- An odd little creative exception, which I'm not sure is still in effect, but certainly was when I first went to school. It is possible to officially close a classroom for a period (usually half an hour a week) for religious classes. This then allows children/parents to opt out of such classes (though in reality, I think this is a bit of a fallacy as if you were to make it opt-in, I think you would have seen something quite different).
However, there is a place for healthy discussion. America is a prime example of what happens when these discussions don't take place. Take for example the question I was asked recently in a classroom:
"Do you go to church?".
I smiled. "No".
"Oh that's right - you guys believe in those multi-armed gods".
"Well no. I don't believe in that either. Here we go. A long theology discussion."
I didn't have the discussion which was a bit of a pity. It would have been a healthy discussion to have.
The fact that there are a lot of similarities between Hinduism, obviously Buddhism, and funnily enough, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That the interpretation of "gods" in the Hindu faith could potentially be seen as heroes - what was needed at the time and that the concept of an all encompassing god can be seen in Hinduism and is often marked out by the blue gods (bearing the soul of that all encompassing god - confusingly referred to as "Brahman").
That the similarities could be attributed to the Indo-Aryan migration and that the further east this migration, the more ... earth bound these religions get. In other words, the similarities between the different beliefs and how an elephant headed god, although different, bears a relationship to the religion they follow.
So America - where religion is not to be discussed in schools. They're an extreme. I'm quite convinced that a lot of the racial tension in America is due to not having these discussions. The lack of understanding around Islam causes all sorts of interesting little rumours to pop up.
I remember during the Gulf war there was something about Saddam Hussein using Islam to motivate his people into war. The idea that invading Kuwait would lead to "the promised land".
A few years later when I was working in Hamilton I met an Iraqi POW who had eventually come to New Zealand where I finally understood the story. It turns out that the Americans had given Kuwait technology that made the extraction of oil cheaper giving Kuwait a huge advantage thereby making Iraqi oil less desirable. This could be a fiction - I've never really confirmed it though it does have some resemblance to one of the origins of the war cited on wikipedia. I am relating a conversation I had probably around 7-8 years ago which was what I understood of the perspective of someone who was in the country at the time so my take on it probably isn't nearly as clear as it could be.
So I believe, while religion itself isn't great in school, healthy discussions are.
And then we were talking about the idea of keeping the rituals but removing god. The reason? Let the individual fill in the blanks. So, for example, when saying grace (and while we're at it, let's rename it. Giving thanks for example), something along the lines of "We are grateful for the food which we are about to receive" rather than "We thank God for the food we're about to receive".
Sure, it's a Christian based ritual. Take the word "God" out and it can be applied all over the place. No one need feel isolated because they don't fit in to that particular religion.
One of the other particular things I don't like about religion is the number of times people thank god.
The man who wins a race thanks god that his competition aren't as well prepared as he, or one of them fell/stumbled/had a bad start etc.
Those who put their heart, effort, time etc. into something and finally achieves something wonderful, dismisses their own efforts, and once again thanks God.
So, at school, I would love to see a purely value based system. Learners would be taught to have faith in themselves. Values taught regardless of and universal to religious inclination or values. If the subject of religion is brought up, then healthy discussion forms around it.
I know there's a benefit to religion in schools. I also think there's a downside or two.