Americans don’t know much about religion, but does it matter?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

One of the great ironies of American life is that for all our religiosity, we don’t know much about religion.

Just how little we know about religion is in the media spotlight this month thanks to a new book by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t.

As Prothero points out, evidence of our religious illiteracy isn’t hard to find. Polls reveal that not only are Americans ignorant of other faiths, they don’t even know much about their own.

So how did a nation steeped in religion at the founding become a place where most people can’t name the first book of the Bible? It’s a fascinating history that Prothero tells well.

Among the most misunderstood parts of the story is the U.S. Supreme Court’s role in creating what some religious conservatives call the “godless public schools.” Contrary to popular myth, the Court wasn’t responsible for banishing religion from the public school curriculum in the 1960s. Religion actually disappeared from the textbooks when “sectarian teaching” was banned from schools in the wake of the bitter Protestant-Catholic Bible wars of the 19th century.

In reality, the Supreme Court has repeatedly encouraged teaching about religion (as distinguished from religious indoctrination) as part of a good public school education. Yes, the establishment clause of the First Amendment requires that school officials be neutral among religions and between religion and non-religion. But neutrality doesn’t mean hostility toward religion or silence about religion.

For many religious Americans, being left out is hardly “neutral.” If the public school curriculum were genuinely neutral, it would include study about religious ways of seeing the world across the curriculum.

Prothero rightly points out how the poor treatment of religion in public schools has helped make us a nation of religious illiterates (although religious groups themselves also get their share of the blame). But if this is a problem today, it was far worse 20 years ago when the curriculum was almost entirely silent about religion and most teachers were afraid to touch the subject with the proverbial 10-foot pole.

That was 20 years ago. Today, state standards in the social studies include considerable mention of religion and therefore textbooks include more discussion of religion. Today, most history and literature teachers are aware that they can talk about religion and keep their jobs. Although better than nothing, this is hardly a recipe for religious literacy.

Going to the next level, however, won’t be easy. Many educators are content with “mentioning” religion more often, seeing little need for in-depth treatment of it. Many religious people are happy to see their religion (favorably) discussed, but aren’t so sure kids should learn about those “others.”

Does this matter? Prothero thinks so. And since I have spent much of the past two decades trying to persuade schools to take religion seriously, I obviously think so too.

Religious literacy matters because religion matters. Religion isn’t just something people used to believe a long time ago. Religion plays a central role — for better and for worse — in shaping events at home and abroad. As we’ve learned since 9/11, what we don’t know about religion can hurt us.

No graduate from an American high school or college is prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century without some knowledge of the world’s major religions.

Religious literacy also matters because religious freedom matters. The United States is the most religiously diverse place in the world and, among developed nations, the most religious. How can we negotiate religious differences — and protect everyone’s rights — if we don’t understand one another?

The cure for religious illiteracy, Prothero argues, is for public high schools to require two religion courses: one in Bible and another in world religions. And he would require all college graduates to take at least one course in religious studies.

I have no problem with a college requirement. And I have long proposed a high school world-religions requirement. Religion is too important, too complex, to be handled adequately by brief discussions in history or literature courses. Some high schools currently offer electives in world religions (there are 11 such courses in Fairfax County, Va., alone). At least one school district (Modesto, Calif.) requires a one-semester course in world religions at the 9th grade level. So it can be done — without controversy or lawsuits.

A required Bible course is another matter. Given its place in Western civilization, schools should include substantial study about the Bible in history and literature courses. And, if handled well, a Bible elective can be a valuable option for students. But a required Bible course comes too close to privileging the Jewish and Christian traditions. Moreover, many school districts are already embroiled in conflicts over Bible electives. Requiring all students to take a Bible course would only up the ante.

Whatever your favored solution, don’t expect reform anytime soon. After all, it has taken 20 years to get minimal treatment of religion in textbooks. But in a world torn by sectarian conflict — and a nation increasingly divided by religion — I wonder if we have time to wait.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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