In its theology of the history of religions, Christianity does not simply take the side of the religious person, take the side of the conservative who keeps to the rules of play of his inherited institution; the Christian rejection of the gods signifies much rather a choice to be on the side of the rebel, who for the sake of his conscience dares to break free from what is accustomed: this revolutionary trait in Christianity has perhaps far too long been hidden...Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, pp. 21-22
I believe there is a basic problem at the heart of any standardized religious curriculum, and this is that it is standardized, and thus, for possibly a large minority of students, bordering on irrelevant. This is a challenge specifically for religious ed--not science or math--and the reason why is not difficult to figure out. Science, math, and English--these courses have no trouble presenting themselves to students as vital skills, tools for the good of their own future. History, literature, art--these course have no trouble presenting themselves as enrichment, producing a well-rounded, knowledgeable citizen.
Somehow in the mix of it all, religion and theology gets bound up with the accusation, in some students' minds if not on their lips (or being reflected in their art classes), that religion is being "crammed down our throats."
I have a special sympathy with this sentiment, having attended a public school myself and thus never having been required to work so many hours studying a faith that I was not yet one-hundred-percent-sure about yet. I know that there is an awkwardness about studying the Catholic religion with the same seriousness as English literature or science. Students are under no illusions about the pluralism of the religious landscape (if only they were under fewer illusions about the pluralism of the scientific landscape!)
Other high school disciplines are liberated, by the consensus of society, to roll along without having their fundamental principles challenged. Students--even rebellious ones--do not raise the objection that we are "brains in a vat" or that history is a manufactured illusion, in order to challenge the dignity of their history teacher's subject. Never mind that history (as my cherished high school history teacher reminded us) is interpretation, and thus is incontrovertibly pluralistic.
Still, no discipline's pluralism is as obvious to a teenager as that of religion, and so no other discipline is going to have religion's share of challenges to a teacher's right to teach (or at least, his right to teach unimpeded by hecklers). Add to this the scurrilous motivator that is resistance to those immediate standards of behavior that only the religion curriculum dictates, and you have a potential tsunami to deal with.
The solution to this distinctive feature of standardized religion curriculum, as I stumbled upon as part of my Spring seminary internship last year, is to have a "remedial" course. I call it "remedial" only in the most literal sense; a standardized school religion curriculum is going to bleed doubt out of the wound of societal irreligion and pluralism. This wound begs for treatment.
Of course, there is no need to describe the situation in such dour terms. What we are really talking about here is not the lamentable waywardness of modern culture, but a discipline which openly calls out for the kind of critical thinking which all the other disciplines lamentably take for granted.
At my high school it is not required that one be Catholic; but we do stress the values of sincerity of heart and (what I endearingly call) a fierce determination for truth. What I can personally allow is that a student pass my course without feeling compelled to join, or re-join, the Holy Catholic Church. What I cannot allow is that this student do so without seriously, laboriously asking the question of why? And to learn to apply that question, with as much vigor and heat, to his/her secular opinions as to Christian doctrines.
I am already in talks to establish a Speech and Debate team next year, if I manage to survive that long. That would be first priority. But in all the free-time of a sick man, I can't help but visualize something more original. A club--not a class--dedicated to the singular purpose of asking and investigating contentious religious questions with the aid of a teacher. A place where nothing is crammed, but everything is made available, and no un-researched opinion is allowed to live longer than it takes to check out a book from the library. The club could generate a file--the memory of the club--so that new members can explore the work of past members and build on it. What would we call it? Doubter's Den? Too insubordinative. Wanderers and Finders? (I liked the idea of "Wanderers", but then I think of how agnostics twist Tolkein's quote to mean that it's ok to wander without finding anything). Truth Seekers Club? I dunno, I dunno.