In the 1950s and '60s, the secular, objective, 'scientific' study of religion broke away from the traditional discipline of religion (i.e., apologetics for a particular dominant religion). In America, the traditional study of Christianity (Protestant or Catholic, depending on the institution) gave way to the comparative study of all the 'major' world religions, and has recently become the study of all aspects of all religious impulses. So today's religious studies departments in U.S. public universities, for example, study every aspect of religion from animism to Tantric Buddhism, from comparative ritual to religion-like worldviews such as Marxism.
Probably the most significant aspect of the shift from apologetics to an (at least theoretically) objective, comprehensive study of religions is the recognition and delineation of the difference between the participant's view of his or her tradition and the scholar's study of that tradition. Armed with the tools of scholarly exegesis, knowledge of ancient languages, better and better historical information of background cultures, and the analytic tools of two to three thousand years of world philosophy, modern scholars of religion can offer alternative, and sometimes more defensible, interpretations of historical religious phenomena.
Teaching about religion froma religious studies point of view can be an exciting activity. Rather than trying to get high school students to memorize the'Four Noble Truths' and 'Three Marks of Existence'of Buddhism, for example, one can discuss the problems inherent in passing on an oral tradition for hundreds of years, or of providing modern philosophical tenets for the translation of those in ancient languages. Rather than take the orthodox Hindu view of the extreme ancientness of its tradition, one can explore the much more recent timelines of the central ideas established by modern scholars of religion and history. Rather than take the New Testament gospels as literal facts about Jesus, one can see what few (albeit extremely radical and world-transforming) phrases scholars actually attribute to him. Rather than learn the synoptic gospels as the holy truth, students can understand the political selection of 'orthodox' writ from a much larger pool of early gospels about Christ (e.g., the Nag Hammadi discoveries).
To avoid the temptation to teach religion traditionally (the total text as the gospel truth), I choose heuristics that chop up the traditional approaches into unrecognizable pieces.Thus, rather than study one 'major' religion at a time, in my classes at Oak Grove we study, for example, the animistic, mythological, and mystical aspects of several traditions, noting the fact that these aspects are part of all religious traditions, from the earliest times to the present. The families of my Taiwanese students continue to engage in 'ancestor worship', an animistic belief in the hovering presence of the spirits of deceased family members; my Southern California students often have parents immersed in NewAge beliefs in astral bodies, angels and souls. So animism is by no means restricted to'primitive' religions!
Single spiritual concepts can also be easily taught across traditional boundaries. The idea of 'soul' - the basic animistic sense - can be traced from prehistoric times. The idea of 'self' can be explored using Krishnamurti's teachings as a view outside traditional confines. Stories about the creation and sustenance of the external world (mythological aspects of most religions), can be contrasted with spiritual insights that deal more with transformations of individual consciousness. There are infinite heuristics, perspectives, ways to compare, contrast, and analyse religious traditions. Thus the way is open to develop a curriculum of religious studies, taking into consideration the understanding, cultural knowledge and maturity of students, and based on the particular interests of the teacher.