Thursday, January 13, 2005

Religious Illiteracy

After reading this commentary in the LA Times about the monumental religious illiteracy of Americans, you have to wonder if maybe the complete exclusion of any mention of religion from the schools has gone to far (more below):

How did this happen? How did one of the most religious countries in the world become a nation of religious illiterates? Religious congregations are surely at fault. Churches and synagogues that once inculcated the "fourth R" are now telling the faithful stories "ripped from the headlines" rather than teaching them the Ten Commandments or parsing the Sermon on the Mount (which was delivered, as only one in three Americans can tell you, by Jesus). But most of the fault lies in our elementary and secondary schools.

In a majority opinion in a 1963 church-state case (Abington vs. Schempp), Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion … and its relationship to the advance of civilization." If so, the education of nearly every public school student in the nation is woefully inadequate.

Because of misunderstandings about the 1st Amendment, religious studies are seldom taught in public schools. When they are, instruction typically begins only in high school and with teachers not trained in the subtle distinction between teaching religion (unconstitutional) and teaching about religion (essential).

Though state educational standards no longer ignore religion as they did a decade or so ago, coverage of religion in history and social science textbooks is spotty at best. According to Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., "It is as if we got freedom of religion in 1791 and then we were free from religion after that."

Mr. Stephen Prothero, the author of this piece, makes clear that it is important to distinguish between teaching religion and teaching about religion. There is nothing in court decisions on this matter that restricts the teaching of comparative religion, but the issue is such a controversial one that many schools simply don't bother at all. If they were to teach it, they might upset the extremists on the left who don't want any mention of religion at all in school. But they might also upset the extremists on the right who don't want their kids being taught anything about those heathen Muslims/Hindus/Buddhists. Easier to just take the path of least resistance and ban any discussion of religion outright (of course, even that creates problems).

The result is a populace so monumentally ignorant of basic facts about religion that they can be easily hoodwinked into buying certain religious idiocy. And by that I don't mean religion itself but simple things like the fact that Allah is the Arabic name for God and is the same God spoken of in the Hebrew and Christian bibles. Lord knows (hah!) that I only know this because I learned it on my own. If my religious education were entirely dependent on just the schools and church I would probably be in a sorrowful state.

The solution to this problem will not be an easy one. But a first step would be an acknowledgement by those who fight against any mention of religion in school that such a course might be self-defeating. Religion is a fundamental aspect of human history and human nature. To deny its existence is a recipe for disaster.


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