If we don’t teach religion in schools, Americans will never understand the rest of the world

Religion is everywhere.
Religion is everywhere.
Image: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo
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In the first week of my undergraduate course on world religions, I give students a “fill-in-the blank” sheet relating to eight major religions.

Students can give any response they want to the prompts, “Muslims are…” “Christians are…” et cetera. Responses are anonymous and students are encouraged to be as candid as they want. These data give me a baseline for the religious literacy of my students and allow me to tailor my lessons to whatever information (or misinformation) they already know. Their responses are often wildly inaccurate. My students have responded that Hindus make a pilgrimage to Mecca, that Daoists worship Winnie the Pooh, and that Judaism is an odd sect within Christianity.

My students are not dumb. In the United States, the level of religious literacy displayed in this exercise is par for the course.

In 2010 the Pew Forum asked more than 3,000 Americans some simple questions about the world’s religions. Most respondents could answer only half of them correctly. A study conducted in 2005 for the Bible Literacy Project tested whether teenagers could name the five major world religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Only 10% could name all five and 15% could not name any.

Amid the push for STEM curriculum (Science-Technology-Engineering-Math), some might smirk at the idea that religious illiteracy is a significant problem. There is an assumption that studying world religion is like studying poetry—a garnish used to round out the “serious” subjects of a college education. But religious literacy is serious because religion is not a discrete and ahistorical phenomenon.

Religious beliefs and practices are embedded in the fabric of human culture, and religious literacy goes beyond the ability to appreciate Dante or Shakespeare. Religious ideas affect politics, economics, and law. Without knowledge of the world’s religions, students will not understand the traditions and values of their neighbors and coworkers. They will be ill-equipped to compete in a global marketplace. Most critically, they will have no framework with which to assess claims about religion made by politicians and the media.

Because many Americans never have the opportunity to go to college, religious literacy should begin in secondary school—in theory it already does.

In many US states, the standards for world history include a basic understanding of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Indeed, many state standards for language arts require that students learn to analyze the use of Biblical themes and references. But in practice, these state-mandated standards are frequently ignored or downplayed in public schools. The biggest reason for this discrepancy is general ignorance about Constitutional law and its implications for religion in public schools.

Before I was a professor, I was a high school teacher. I found that teachers and administrators, as well as students and parents, had a vague sense that religion is verboten in public schools but could not accurately articulate why. Many people seemed to believe that religion cannot be discussed in the classroom because “it might make someone uncomfortable.” This is a dangerous myth.

Education often requires both students and teachers to venture outside their comfort zone. As a white teacher working with black students in Atlanta, Georgia, teaching about the history of slavery made me very uncomfortable. This did not mean I could avoid talking about it. Students cannot cultivate moral agency without discussing controversial and sensitive topics.

Another widely held misconception is that public schools have “banned religion” or that schools must be “religion free zones.” There is no law that bans religion outright from public schools. This myth has arisen from a misunderstanding of the establishment clause. The First Amendment contains two clauses referring to religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Since Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court has interpreted the establishment clause to mean that state and federal governments must remain neutral by not promoting one religion over another. The “free exercise” clause protects the freedom of citizens, including students, to practice their religion. Together, these two clauses are the basis for separation of church and state. But as Charles C. Haynes of the Religious Freedom Education Project explained, “In a nation committed to religious liberty, public schools are neither the local church nor religion free zones.”

Educators who have taught at both the college and high school level have often commented that high school students are more inclined to take new ideas seriously. This is why religious literacy should not be deferred until college.

Studying the world’s religious traditions gives students the opportunity to explore “big questions” and cultivate moral agency. This not only enriches their quality of life, but strengthens our democracy. High school students who practice asking big questions become citizens who can think critically about what makes for a good and just society.