Curriculum Innovation, Testing and Evaluation: Proceedings of the 1st Annual JALT Pan-SIG Conference.
May 11-12, 2002. Kyoto, Japan: Kyoto Institute of Technology.

Bringing religion and worldviews into a college EFL curriculum:
Some personal insights

by Carolyn Obara (Tokyo Metropolitan College)
and Robert Kirkpatrick (Prefectural University of Kumamoto)


To a casual observer, the average Japanese appears more spiritually aware than the average American or European. For example, most Japanese make a habit of visiting their local shrines to ask for success before important life events such as entrance exams. It is also clear, however, that these practices cannot be directly traced to any widespread current devotion of the Japanese people to a particular religious faith — although it can be argued that Confucian and Buddhist principles are still very influential here, even if on the wane.
Some say that the apparent Japanese indifference to religion can be traced to policies of the Meiji Government which tried, on the surface at least, to separate church and state (Ama, 2000). Others such as Reischauer (1988, p. 203) think it goes back much farther to the time when Confucian principles – which are concerned primarily with man's role in society and not with any devotion to higher powers – first became widely accepted and practiced in Japan. More recently, change in the status of the Emperor has caused many older Japanese to lose their religious center. Moreover, many younger Japanese – as their western peers – can no longer reconcile religious dogma with their knowledge of science.
". . . an important research agenda should be to compare and bridge student's worldviews and the scientific worldview, and to explore the content and epistemology of western and non-western knowledge of the physical world."

This is appears to be a trend in many cultures. Taylor and Cobern (1998) write that the scientific worldview ". . . operating through the agency of local schools, delegitimates and rapidly displaces traditional ways of knowing, being and valuing" (p. 204). With regard to the power of the western scientific view, Pomeroy (1994) suggests an important research agenda should be to compare and bridge student's worldviews and the scientific worldview, and to explore the content and epistemology of western and non-western knowledge of the physical world.
This interview is with a young, anonymous Japanese physics lecturer. He majored in physics and then went to an American university to complete a Ph.D. in Astrophysics and now lectures in Tokyo. While his outlook is not necessarily typical, it is included as an indication of the power of the scientific worldview current among a sizeable section of the Japanese population:

Q: What are your views on religion?
A: Like most Japanese I go to a shrine with my family on New Years day, but I don't have any particular religion. My family is traditionally Buddhist, but I think my parents are not serious about it. I think all religions may be beneficial for ceremonial purposes or peace of mind, but if Christians say creation is scientific, this is untrue. We have to teach people how to think scientifically. We should not mix science and religion.

[ p. 87 ]

Q: Is life after death possible?
A: No, it is impossible.
Q: What is mind?
A: It is just idea, concept. In the chemical or physical model there is no mind. In psychology it exists but in real science it doesn't exist. If you discuss whether something exists it must be matter. Conceptually mind could exist but as matter it doesn't exist. Thinking is a function of the brain. It is material but it is difficult to investigate human thinking. So I think science can't investigate mind in the same way that matter can be investigated because mind is only a concept. It is not real. This is a very difficult subject.
Q: Why are some people kind and others cruel?
A: The person's environment, upbringing. There may be some tendency at birth but most from environment.
Q: Is knowledge of literature, history or religion useful to science majors?
A: It is ok – I think they should study more than just science.
Q: Any further comments about religion and science?
A: When I was a teenager I believed in unscientific ways, ghosts, UFOs, reincarnation, heaven. But now I see the universe objectively, I see things clearly. I have completely changed.

In any event, most modern Japanese are very secular in outlook and disinterested in any attempt to publicly acknowledge or explore religious and philosophical issues. We believe, however, that denial of their religious heritage and ignorance of major world beliefs often hinders students' understanding of global events. Furthermore, the continued growth of new religions and cults in Japan, even after the Aum Shin Rikkyou crimes, indicates that many people may be seeking something beyond material prosperity.
Therefore, despite the personal nature of religious beliefs and philosophical leanings, this would seem to be a topic which could and should be included in Cross-Cultural Studies curriculia. Granted, teachers should never force a topic or a belief on their students, yet we can be aware that students may subconsciously be looking for guidance in these very personal areas as well as in strictly academic fields. Of course many private post-secondary institutions in Japan are either Christian or Buddhist and thus already implement religion classes. Hence the comments in this paper should be seen as been directed mainly to public colleges or non-religious private institutions. While we both teach our classes completely in English, we feel the comments made here would apply also to classes taught in Japanese.

Introducing religion and worldviews into the English curriculum

Here are some ways to introduce religious or philosophical issues into general discussion courses:
  1. Introduce the religion or philosophy completely at random as it appears in current news events. For example, in the 2001-02 school year, the Taliban destroyed the huge statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, causing outrage and consternation all over the world. Later in the year, terrorists associated with the Taliban destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon in the United States. The former story created opportunities to discuss the Islamic aversion to the artistic and religious depiction of human forms due to the prohibition of idolatry. The latter was an opportunity to talk about the history of Islam in relation to Christianity and the Crusades.
  2. [ p. 88 ]

  3. Teach a unit containing an overview of world religions as preparation for the discussion of current events or global issues. Such a unit might include the five main world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism – and some philosophies such as Confucianism and Atheism. This would probably take no more than a few weeks of a semester or year-long course if only relatively neutral questions were addressed. See Obara 2002, Appendix I and Cates 2001, pp. 10-15 for examples of handouts and lesson plans.
  4. Occasionally introduce a unit or topic which has religious or philosophical aspects and talk about the way various religions would react to this topic. In a women's issues class or unit, for example, such topics might include abortion; marriage, divorce and other family issues; and sexual harassment. Teachers might not have detailed knowledge about the viewpoints of several religions regarding all the topics, but there are several places on the Internet where information can be garnered. This can also be a project for students to research. See Kirkpatrick, 2000, p. 146-148, for lesson plans on abortion and war.
  5. Collect newspaper articles, textbook units and Internet addresses concerning various topics and include religion and philosophy fact files with them. Let students choose which topics they would like to study in a workshop approach or as topics for reports. With this approach, few students may choose the religion/philosophy topics, but teachers can be sure that those who do are really interested, and they need not worry about forcing these topics on anyone.

Carolyn Obara introduces the five major world religions as a part of a second-year discussion class of mostly female students. She says:
When the topic of world religions is announced, students often react negatively with glum faces, a few groans, and silence from the majority. But I have found that there is a significant group of silent supporters who seem to want to discuss this topic. Perhaps they don't realize they want it until we are immersed in the topic, but by the end of the course when I ask which topics they enjoyed most and which they liked least, about a fourth of the students indicate on my evaluation form that they liked the religion lessons most and no one has said this was their least enjoyable topic. I know the faculty have heard about the class and some of them are distrustful of religion in general, but they have not said anything to me, perhaps because they know the religion unit is a short-term part of the course. I would actually welcome a little controversy which would allow me to discuss this topic with people who have the vocabulary to handle it, but there seems to be no interest there. It is a little disappointing that the students are more interested, on the whole, in discussing philosophical topics than are the faculty.

[ p. 89 ]

Robert Kirkpatrick has been teaching a year-long elective course on world religions and philosophies open to all students and the general public at the Prefectural University of Kumamoto for the past three years. In addition, this year the faculty of letters invited him to teach a seminar class for senior students on comparative culture comparing Japanese and western worldviews. He says:
My experience with students has been quite positive, probably because the courses are not compulsory and so attract students who genuinely wish to learn about different religions and worldviews. The faculty have been entirely supportive since they see these classes as giving the English department a broader scope. No doubt my enthusiasm for this subject is also a factor in both student and faculty perceptions.

The first year of teaching these classes I spent many hours sifting information and preparing lectures. Mostly this involved identifying a topic and then simplifying the complex English so that my students could follow. The class time included myself giving the lecture and then students asking me questions or making comments. However, I noticed that when I spoke less it gave students the space to formulate their own thinking and often they expressed quite sophisticated insights. The classes that were more discussion-based were the most well-received.

This year I completely changed the syllabus and now I assign a reading each week; every student then gives a short presentation based on the information and their opinion of it. The class then comments on interesting points in the presentation. As with a lot of teachers I enjoy the sound of my own voice, and it goes against a strong innate vanity to let others have their say. Nevertheless, I have been consciously reducing my speaking time throughout the year, until I have now become mostly a facilitator. The success of this approach still irks my vanity a little, but with students visibly energized I am convinced of the benefits.

Additional innovations include the invitation of outside speakers and fieldtrips. Last year a Zen monk (an American living in Japan) gave a very practical lecture that all enjoyed – and which carried on long after the class was scheduled to end. This year we took a trip to a local Jinja (Shinto shrine). I arranged to meet with a priest and he discussed the many questions prepared by the class; for the English component students gave a translation of what was said. We all went away with a sense of history, culture, and a little awe for this serene meeting. Again I saw that my main job was to keep out of the way and allow the students the space to formulate questions and respond in the way that seemed appropriate to them. Since April this year the university has been having a series of 'Future Planning' meetings with all faculties expected to make substantial innovations in the curriculum. At a recent meeting the English Department submitted a proposal that "Cultural Studies", with an emphasis on comparative studies, be a new third branch of the core curriculum (the current two being Linguistics and Literature) and this is likely to encourage more classes on worldview/religion in the future.
". . . whether students are consciously searching for answers or not, introducing religion and worldviews can provide a helpful introduction and stimulate profound reflection."


Professor Ama of Meiji Gakuen University indicated in an interview with the Daily Yomiuri (Ama, cited in Ozawa, 2000) that he believes most people are not satisfied if they remain in a state of religious non-affiliation their whole lives. Ama asserts 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. Thus whether students are consciously searching for answers or not, introducing religion and worldviews can provide a helpful introduction and stimulate profound reflection.
Introducing any new subject into the curriculum takes persistence and patience. This especially applies to such a potentially controversial subject as religion and worldviews. However, by being aware of opportunities to put forward the advantages, such as when speaking with colleagues, and at department meetings, then a base is being built that may/will eventually be rewarded with the solid support of staff. How students perceive the first course will be critical in deciding whether future courses are well attended. If this and successive courses are successful, then the administration is bound to take notice and eventually the subject should become an accepted fixture in the overall university curriculum.


Cates, K. A. (2001, January). Teaching about world religions. Global Issues in Language Education Newletter, 41, 10-15.

Kirkpatrick, R. (2000). Teaching philosophy and religion. In A. S. Mackenzie (Ed.) Content in Language Education: Looking at the Future (pp. 144-148). Tokyo: JALT CUE SIG.

Obara, C. (2002, March). A rationale for teaching religion and/or philosophy in English language global issues classes. Tokyo Metropolitan College Dept. of Cross-Cultural Studies Journal, 6, 23-30.

Ozawa, H. (2000, May 16). Why do Japanese view themselves as irreligious? The Daily Yomiuri, p. 7.

Reischauer, E. O. (1988). The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co.

2002 Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index
Complete Pan SIG-Proceedings: Topic Index Author Index Page Index Title Index Main Index

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