Why religious literacy matters

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Twenty-first century America is the most religiously diverse society on earth and — among developed countries — one of the most religious.

But how much do inhabitants of our faith-saturated land actually know about religion? Not very much, according to a new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life on Sept. 28.

Fewer than half of Americans know that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday and other basic facts about the world’s major faiths.

Being religious in America, it would appear, doesn’t translate into knowledge about religions, including one’s own. According to the survey, 45% of American Catholics, for example, are unaware that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. And 43% of Jews do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

But does a high level of religious illiteracy in America really matter? With so many other knowledge gaps to worry about — science and math, for instance — should we care that only 27% of us know that most Indonesians are Muslim?

Yes, we should. Religious literacy matters because religion matters. For better and for worse, religious convictions help shape events and public policies in the U.S. and throughout the world. As we learned early on confronting sectarian violence in Iraq, what we don’t know about religion can hurt us.

Religious literacy also matters because religious freedom matters. Ignorance breeds intolerance and prejudice, as evidenced in our own history by periodic outbreaks of nativism and the persistence of anti-Semitism.

In the current climate of uncertainty and fear, a little knowledge (especially when based on propaganda from the Internet) can do considerable harm. Witness the anti-mosque protests around the country this summer fueled by dissemination of distorted, incomplete and often ugly misinformation about Islam and American Muslims.

One obvious fix for religious illiteracy is for public schools to do a better job teaching about the major world religions. But doing that would depend in part on public understanding of the First Amendment. Here again, the Pew survey is the bearer of bad news.

While most people (89%) correctly understand that Supreme Court decisions bar public school teachers from leading their classes in prayer, many incorrectly believe that religion has been banned from classrooms altogether.

Sixty-seven percent mistakenly believe that teachers aren’t permitted to “read from the Bible as an example of literature,” even though teaching about the Bible as literature is constitutional, as many Supreme Court justices have repeatedly stated. And 51% wrongly think teachers can’t “offer a class comparing the world’s religions,” even though a small, but growing, number of school districts offer electives in world religions.

Contrary to popular perception that public schools are religion-free zones, social studies standards and textbooks now include coverage of the major religious traditions, although much of this remains superficial. Most of this material has been added over the past 15 years, largely without controversy.

Last week, however, the Texas Board of Education stirred up a new debate about how religion is treated in the curriculum by passing a resolution attacking textbooks for “pro-Islamic/anti-Christian bias.”

Although many history textbooks could certainly stand improvement, this assault (mostly on books no longer used in Texas) appears to be more about politics than education. The strident tone of the resolution will likely trigger a new round of culture-war conflicts over religion content in other parts of the country.

Despite the challenges, schools need to take religious literacy seriously. Unless Americans learn something about one another, how will we negotiate our religious differences in the years ahead? How will we prepare young people for living in a world where religion plays an increasingly important role?

A good start would be to watch “God in America,” a groundbreaking six-hour documentary produced by WGBH/Boston that airs on PBS Oct. 11-13. The series explores America’s religious history — including the much-misunderstood origins of religious liberty — by combining outstanding scholarship with lively storytelling.

What we need (and what “God in America” could help launch) is a national conversation about the constitutional role of religion in American public life. Beyond shouting and name-calling, we urgently need a better understanding of our history — and one another.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.