Skip to comments.Americans get an 'F' in religion
Posted on 03/09/2007 6:45:18 AM PST by Sopater
Sometimes dumb sounds cute: Sixty percent of Americans cant name five of the Ten Commandments, and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, isnt laughing. Americans deep ignorance of world religions their own, their neighbors or the combatants in Iraq, Darfur or Kashmir is dangerous, he says.
His new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesnt, argues that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.
Belief is not his business, says Prothero, who grew up Episcopalian and now says hes a spiritually confused Christian. He says his argument is for empowered citizenship.
More and more of our national and international questions are religiously inflected, he says, citing President Bushs speeches laden with biblical references and the furor when the first Muslim member of Congress chose to be sworn in with his right hand on Thomas Jeffersons Quran.
If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because theyre both Muslim, and youve been told Islam is about peace, you wont understand whats happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know its so?
If you want to be involved, you need to know what theyre saying. Were doomed if we dont understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We cant outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.
Scholars and theologians who agree with him say Americans woeful level of religious illiteracy damages more than democracy.
Youre going to make assumptions about people out of ignorance, and theyre going to make assumptions about you, says Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
Goff cites a widely circulated claim on the Internet that the Quran foretold American intervention in the Middle East, based on a supposed passage that simply isnt there. Its an entire argument for war based on religious ignorance.
Were impoverished by ignorance, says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches. You cant draw on the resources of faith if you only have an emotional understanding, not a sense of the texts and teachings.
But if people dont know Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities destroyed for their sinful ways, Campbell blames Sunday schools that trivialized religious education. If we want people to have serious knowledge, we have to get serious about teaching our own faith.
Protheros solution is to require middle-schoolers to take a course in world religions and high schoolers to take one on the Bible. Biblical knowledge also should be melded into history and literature courses where relevant. He wants all college undergrads to take at least one course in religious studies.
He calls for time-pressed adults to sample holy books and history texts. His book includes a 90-page dictionary of key words and concepts from Abraham to Zen. Theres also a 15-question quiz which his students fail every year.
But its the controversial, though constitutional, push into schools that draws the most attention.
In theory, everyone favors children knowing more. The National Education Association handbook says religious instruction in doctrines and practices belongs at home or religious institutions, while schools should teach world religions history, heritage, diversity and influence.
Only 8% of public high schools offer an elective Bible course, according to a study in 2005 by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools. The project is supported by Freedom Forums First Amendment Center, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that promotes free speech.
The study surveyed 1,000 high schoolers and found that just 36% know Ramadan is the Islamic holy month; 17% said it was the Jewish day of atonement.
Goff says schools are not wholly to blame for religious illiteracy. There are simply more groups, more players. Students didnt know Ramadan any better in 1965, but now there are as many Muslims as Jews in America. Its more important to know whos who.
Also today, there is more emphasis on religious experience as a mark of true religion and less emphasis on doctrine and knowledge of the faith.
Still, its the widely misunderstood 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that may have been the tipping point: It removed devotional Bible reading from the schools but spelled out that it should not have been removed from literature and history.
The decision clearly states you cant be educated without it, but it scared schools so much they dropped it all, Goff says.
Schools are terrified of this, says Joy Hakim, author of several U.S. history textbooks. Shes in her 70s but remembers well as a Jewish child how she felt like an outsider in schools that pushed Christianity in the curriculum.
But she says the backlash went too far. Now, you cant use biblical characters or narrative in anything. Weve stopped teaching stories. We teach facts, and the characters are lost.
Religion, like the arts, has become an afterthought in an education climate driven by the fixation on literacy and numeracy math and reading, says Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of the standards-based education movement. If the ways schools, teachers, principals and superintendents are judged all depend on math and reading scores, thats what youre going to teach, he says.
Still, its a tough tightrope to walk between those who say the Bible can be just another book, albeit a valuable one, and those who say it is inherently devotional.
The First Amendment Center also published a guide to The Bible and the Public Schools, which praised a ninth-grade world religions course in Modesto, Calif., and cited a study finding students were able to learn about other faiths without altering their own beliefs. But it also said the class may not be easily replicated and required knowledgeable, unbiased teachers.
Leland Ryken, an English professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., tested a 2006 textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, underwritten by the Bible Literacy Project. Ryken favors adding classes in the Bible and literature and social studies. But he cautions, Religious literacy and world religions are not the same as the Bible as literature. Its a much more loaded subject, and I really question if high school students can get much knowledge beyond a sense of the importance of religion.
The Bible and Its Influence has been blasted by conservative Christians such as the Rev. John Hagee, pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Hagee calls it a masterful work of deception, distortion and outright falsehoods planting concepts in the minds of children which are contrary to biblical teaching.
Hagee wrote to the Alabama legislature opposing adoption of the text, citing points such as discussion questions that could lead children away from a belief in God. Example: Asking students to ponder if Adam and Eve got a fair deal as described in Genesis would plant the seed that since God is the author of the deal, God is unfair.
Hagee prefers the Bible itself as a textbook for Bible classes, used with a curriculum created by a group of conservative evangelicals, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, based in Greensboro, N.C. The council says its curriculum is being offered in more than 300 schools.
Mark Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, looked last year at how Texas public school districts taught Bible classes. His two studies, sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, a civil liberties group, found only 25 of more than 1,000 districts offered such a class.
And 22 of them, including several using the Greensboro groups curriculum, were clearly over the line, teaching Christianity as the norm, and the Bible as inspired by God, says Chancey. One teacher even showed students a proselytizing Power Point titled, Gods road map for your life that was clearly unconstitutional, he says.
The controversies, costs and competing demands in the schools have prompted many to turn instead to character education.
But classes promoting pluralism and tolerance fail on the religious literacy front because they reduce religion to morality, Prothero says, or they promote a call for universal compassion as if it were the only value that matters.
We are not all on the same one path to the same one God, he says. Religions arent all saying the same thing. Thats presumptuous and wrong. They start with different problems, solve the problems in different ways, and they have different goals.
If men are so wicked with religion, what would they be if without it? -- Ben Franklin
An education lacking in the classics is unworthy of the name. One cannot be a well-rounded adult without them.
That having been said, where are these kids' parents?
Yes, isn't just EVERYONE a confused Christian now days..../sarc
Since the "Purpose Driven" Movement, the Ten Commandments are now known as the "few suggestions".
If Americans get a failing grade, I wonder what the rest of the world gets?
I think Bible as literature classes in schools should be supported by all Christians. I have found most people who are hostile to Christianity have worse than zero Bible knowledge. They have popular misconceptions of the Bible as their only Biblical knowledge.
No, that is ridiculous. These new movements have compromised Christianity to the point where no one even knows the difference! Their theme is to "make the church appear as the world, so the world will come to the church" instead of separating themselves FROM the world and letting God bring the people in.
"separating themselves FROM the world and letting God bring the people in."
You're not too big on evangelism are you?
Actually I'm quite large on it. Just not in the phony stuff you see on TV or read about in a Rick Warren book.