As a social studies teacher, you become very aware of the words you use. Calling a group of people “primitive” or “barbaric” or “uncivilized” is damaging and I think unequivocally wrong to do period, but especially so as a teacher. I try to model using neutral language in the classroom, and if I do not I will always apologize or tell my students to help me find a better, more neutral word. Similarly I do not let my students use the words “weird” or “strange” when describing cultural beliefs of others, but I also do not want to embarrass them because for many of my students my class is the first real encounter they have with world cultures. Instead I will say, “We do not want to call others beliefs/traditions/practices weird, that’s no so nice, but I can understand they may feel strange to you. Let’s say they’re different from how you live instead, ok?”
I may sound like I am talking to 5 year olds and teaching them to share on the playground, but I think words matter even to 16 year olds. My job is not just to teach world history, my job is to help frame students to learn about world history and hopefully enable them to engage with diverse cultures when they leave my classroom. And how I talk about others in that space matters. It matters if I have students of that culture/religion in my room AND it matters if my room contains zero diversity too.
Read more: What do I do when I teach history?
And no, this is not me being “ultra” PC or super “woke.” This is just being a good human. How would you like it if a whole group of people said you going to a building to pray to an invisible sky god while looking at an image of a large letter “t” on the wall was “weird” or “stupid”? Exactly.
Pagan vs Polytheistic
Ugh I hate the word “pagan” but I have yet to find an acceptable umbrella term I can use in its its place. And maybe that’s the problem? Maybe we should stop using umbrella terms for religious identity. The word itself isn’t inherently negative, it derives from the Latin word “paganus,” which simply meant someone who did not practice one of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, or, later on, Islam). However, look at the way this word is defined by Merriam Webster:
I have LOADS of issues with those definitions. The word “heathen,” for example, totally has a negative “Satan worshiping” connotation to anyone from a Christian culture like the United States. So here’s my issue: in class I would like to use a word that means “people who practice a faith that wasn’t one of the major world religions.” But when I stepped back, the thought crossed my mind: why am I trying to put all those various faiths into one bucket?
*A Note about Satanism: please for the love of all things holy STOP using “Satanism” for your catch all to say “bad” people or “creepy cult.” It is a legitimate, and beautifully fascinating religion. I’ve have students who were Satanists and it’s completely discriminatory for you to us their religious identity for a negative catch all.
So today I decide to diversity my language to reflect the global religious tapestry. When I speak of a religion that had many gods I will say “they were/are polytheistic,” if I speak about a religion that worships spirits I will say “they were/are animistic,” and so forth. I found that this is helping my students to move away from an us (one “Christian” god) vs them (other “wrong” religions) mindset.
On a related note, in class I have stopped capitalizing the “g” in the word God when referring to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God (yep, they all worship the same God) because I noticed I capitalized that God but never capitalized when I referred to any other religion’s god or gods. That just seemed to unconsciously provide legitimacy to one faith tradition over the others. In my blog and personal writings I capitalize “God” because I am Catholic but I do not do it in the classroom.
Mythology & the Bible
When people here the word “myth” they usually think “fiction,” at least I do. And whenever I taught ancient cultures or world religions I noticed I used the phrase “Ancient Egyptian myth” or “Hindu myth” but when I spoke of a passage or story from the Bible I would say “the Biblical story…” That’s crap and I never noticed! I was accidently elevating the Bible as “truth” and devaluing the religious worldview of countless other people around the world.
Here is the definition of myth from Merriam Webster:
the myths dealing with the gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people
Whether you believe the Bible is the “gospel truth” or not (couldn’t resist the pun!) that definition still applies. Moses, David, Jesus are “heroes” of the Bible. You may believe those stories are literal, but, regardless, they are your heroes in your story. So now when I discuss Biblical stories, like the Creation story or Tower of Babel, I will say “Ancient Near Eastern mythology” and I explain to my students why I have chosen this word to describe ALL religious narrative. I am not trying to delegitimize someone’s personal beliefs, but I am trying to not elevate my personal ones in the classroom setting.
*A Note about Catholics & Genesis: the Catholic Church allows Catholics to choose (shocker I know!) if they want to believe in the *literal* story of Creation, 7 days and all, or, like most of us, believe it to be an allegory. I am of the second camp, because you know, science is real and no one sat there taking an eye-witness account of anything in Genesis. Some groups, Christian and otherwise, believe Genesis is literal and fine for them – religious freedom y’all!