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America, a Nation of Religious Illiterates?

April 16th, 2007 by Celeste Fremon



The LA Times reported yesterday that Texas is considering passing a bill that would require the state’s school districts to offer classes in “the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras.”

The bill’s proponents swear that such classes will teach the Bible in “an objective and nondevotional manner.”


Historically this has rarely been the case. For instance, the Times points to a recent study that “found that of Texas’ 25 public school districts with a Bible course, 22 of the districts’ classes had a Christian slant.” In other words, even if the course is purported to be taught from a neutral perspective, instructors find it hard to draw the line between teaching and preaching.

It doesn’t boost our confidence that the proposed Texas bill was written by state Representative Warren Chisum, an anti-evolution Sunday school teacher, best known for his habit of trying to pass laws that do end runs around such pesky issues as church/state separation.

On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as my mother would say. How about offering a real course in religious literacy? By that, I mean one that educates kids in all the great religions of the world. That’s precisely what Boston University religion department chair, Stephan Prothero, argues for in his new book Religious Literacy.

“In spite of the fact that more than 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God,” writes Prothero, “only a tiny portion of them knows a thing about religion” Being a nation of religious illiterates, says Prothero, is a not such a great idea. Given our place in the world, can we really afford to be ignorant about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism?

(For instance, if people who now hold positions of power in our government—I’m not going to mention names—but if they had possessed a bit more knowledge of, say, the difference between Sunni and Shia, might they have avoided certain ugly messes in which we now find ourselves?)

Oh, by the way, most Americans hardly know the first thing Christianity or Judaism either, says Prothero, even if they practice those religions. Given the influence of the two faiths on our history and on much of our literature, he says, it’s both wise and practical for us—whether we are personally religious or not—to know a bit about them.

So, Texas, what d’you think? You can make a move away from religious tolerance and the Constitution—or lead the way toward religious literacy.

Your call.


It turns out that Andy Rotherham and Donna Freitas wrote a terrific article on this subject for Education Week three years ago. (Andy is the co-founder of the education think tank, Education Sector, and the guy behind, absolutely the best and coolest education blog. Donna Freitas is a professor of religious studies at St. Michaels College.)

Education Week requires a sign-up process so I’ve pasted some of the salient ‘graphs below:

…..Religion is an essential factor affecting—in both positive and tragic ways—the course of history, culture, politics, science, and world events. Yet we are raising an entire generation of young people who have discussed neither their own religions nor those of others in an academic setting. Our students have been willed a world fraught with religious strife, yet we are leaving them uneducated about what that means or how to deal with it.

We cannot understand world history, or put into full perspective the events of 9/11, the political situation in the Middle East, and many other global conflicts, without at least a basic understanding of major religions, their significant internal contours, and their relationship to one another. This means that it is irresponsible to leave religion outside the classroom…..

….With better training, teachers can in turn raise the level of classroom dialogue about religion beyond purely emotion- charged conversations or personal testimonials, and toward lively and intelligent debate in the way that other politically charged issues inspire. Third and most important, the general public, and culture warriors in particular, must acknowledge a crucial distinction: Teaching about religion is not the same as teaching religion or teaching personal spirituality. There is an essential difference between teaching the role of religion in history, politics, or a particular religious tradition and teaching students to hold a particular set of religious beliefs.

The events on which we reflect as this year ends and another begins should remind us all of the tremendous impact of religious conflict on our world. They should also remind us of how many in our own culture rely on religion to transcend tragedy and begin anew. We do not advocate separate religious classes in schools or any other singular solution. But we believe that the religious component of current events and historical issues can and must be addressed in an academic setting.

We must do this to ensure that the wall between church and state does not become a wall separating future generations from the well-rounded education necessary to understand today’s world.

Posted in Education, Religion, State government | 8 Comments »

8 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    If Texas wants it, let ‘em do it. I don’t live there. However, I would also like a course to cover the original meaning of the First Amendment and the origin and intent of the term “separation of church and state,” which few people know.

    Liberals would be more likely to defend the teaching of witchcraft than allow anyone to say something nice about Christianity.

  2. richard locicero Says:

    I believe that term comes from a letter from Jefferson to Madison about the necessity of a “Wall of Separation between Church and State.”

    But here’s something I find more interesting. The LAT recently ran an article about the show “Friday Night Lights” on NBC. I haven’t seen it but I did see the fine film it was based on that, in turn, was based on a first rate look at Texas HS Football in the Panhandle. Having had the unfortunate experience of visiting the Permian Basin there I was struck by the bleakness so well presented in the movie – truly a place to be from! The critics love the TV show and the author of the piece defended the show and urged more people to watch it and chided NBC for moving it around – guess its ratings haven’t been too good.

    But what I found interesting was a follow-up article in which the author discussed being chided by readers over praising the show. Was it because they weren’t sports fans? No, the writers said they were all sick and tired of hearing about Texas and, frankly, wanted nothing to do with the Lone Star State. I think stories like the one above and news that the Texas State GOP want to banm the teaching of Evolution and Declare that we are “A Christain Nation inder the Lord Jesus Christ” has made that place a national joke and GWB and the most incompetent and corrurpt administration with its “Austin Gang” has just reinforced this.

    People have decidedf that they don’t like Texas and don’t want to live there. So this just underscores that feeling.

  3. Woody Says:

    The phrase separation of church and state was popularized by Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists to address the concerns of the church–not a bunch of godless ACLU attorneys.

    Why can’t liberals accept that people in other regions don’t want to be like them and leave them alone? You would think that a prayer asking God to protect football players before a game was a stealth plan by the U.S. that could convert everyone in the stands to Christianity. Yet, the elitists would force a sanitized version of Islam down our throats as something disguised as literacy.

    If you want religious literacy, let me start with this…Islam is an intolerant religion that supports terrorism. Yet, you people are more afraid of Jesus.

    Off topic, but isn’t that terrible about the killings at Virginia Tech today? Makes me want to pack a revolver.

  4. richard locicero Says:

    No Woody, I’m more afraid of the Jesus Christers like those GOP nutbags in Texas who, among other things, think its peachy keen for everyone to carry a concealed weapon – including convicted murderers.

    Guess they feel safer in Blacksburg today thanks to the right to bear arms!

  5. Woody Says:

    If another student had carried a gun, then this travesty would have been cut short.

  6. richard locicero Says:

    I was waiting for that! By all means I’d love to see USC look like the OK Corral. High Noon by Tommy Trojan!

  7. Woody Says:

    If the bad guys have guns, the good guys need them, too.

  8. Mavis Beacon Says:

    Kevin Drum often recommends elevating the Texas Republican platform because the sheer radicalness of the document would illustrate what the modern Republican Party is really about. In a similar vein, I wish we could give Woody a real platform. You just can’t get most people to insult 1.4 billion people so casually. Almost nobody would want to admit to sharing his politics.

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