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September 28th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

My Take: Why American public schools need religion courses

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Who knows more about religion - the arch-atheist Christopher Hitchens or Islam basher Rev. Franklin Graham?  Most likely the unbeliever, according to a U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

In this, the first major study of religious literacy among American adults, Americans as a whole flunked, answering correctly 16 of 32 questions about Christianity, the Bible and the world’s religions - for an embarrassing score of only 50 percent.

Atheists and agnostics, however, got 21 right, better than both Jews and Mormons, who rounded out the top three groups of scorers. Although this result (67 percent right, or a D by my calculations) was nothing to write home about, it was 5 correct questions above the national average.

If nonbelievers were the thoroughbreds in this race for religious knowledge, Roman Catholics, with fewer than 15 right answers on average, were the mules. In results that will surely prove to be a thorn in the side of Catholic educators, fewer than half (42 percent) of the Catholics surveyed were able to name Genesis as the first book in the Bible. Ouch!

Still, the big story here will likely be that those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity.

As the author of the 2007 book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–and Doesn't" and as an adviser to this Pew study, I wasn’t surprised by these results. I do hope, however, that this dismal data will serve as a spur to action.

In "Religious Literacy," I described our collective religious ignorance as a civic problem of the first order. How to hold politicians who pin their public policies to the Bible without knowing something about that text?  And how to make sense of religious conflict in the Middle East without knowing something about Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

Believers and nonbelievers obviously disagree on the virtues and vices of religion. But all careful observers of the world should be able to agree on this: From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world.

It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world's religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Bible • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture & Science • Education • Islam • Judaism • Middle East • Opinion

soundoff (546 Responses)
  1. Diana

    If everyone actually read the Bible and other religious texts, along with using realistic thinking skills, this world would be far less religious and much better off. As an atheist, I encourage believers of all kinds to carefully and thoroughly read their own religious texts and the texts of other religions. "Faith" is just another word for "too lazy" to bother to think through a decision about what one chooses to believe.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:44 am |
    • Frogist

      @Diana: I am agnostic and I don't think faith = too lazy to think thru a decision. But I think that comes down to how we define faith. I have faith that a plane will not fall out of the sky and smash into my computer as I'm typing, but I wouldn't consider that a lazy supposition. I would consider my faith in those things not happening is a faith in probability and numbers. When people equate their "faith" with religious doctrine that has settled into a mass of antiquated rituals and an unquestioning belief in things that are harmful, that is what I object to. But faith as an emotion based on experiential evidence is not necessarily a bad thing.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  2. johnharry

    good luck with the faith, ain't happening spudz

    September 28, 2010 at 6:27 am |
  3. aap1970

    Way to many wars in hustory where fought in the name of god. Including the war on terrorism is being fought in the name of god. So teaching religion in public schools most likely will increased violence in schools since alot of schools have students from differnet religons.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:52 am |
  4. CAAA

    I am one of those that scores high on religion knowledge because I have studied the Bible and the Koran. It is plain and obvious from these studies that these books were written by people who believed the little voice in their head was the spoken word of God or in some cases they were good charlatans. I think that one main reason that there are so many believers is because they have not read these books and they take the word of priests and relatives as evidence for God. Religious people should be concerned if the bible were to be taught in school because people would see for themselves the big con.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:51 am |
    • Petey

      So've read the Bible and the Koran, but not enough religious history to conjecture on the genesis of personal faith beyond that people "believe their priests and relatives"? Sorry, that is not a credible self-characterization. Saying you have read the Bible doesn't prove that you have, and your unabashed ignorance of religious history rather controverts your unsubstantiated claim. So, I call BS on you.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:57 am |
  5. Relax_Please

    We need to remember that people kill people. Should we not teach science and about technology because people may take them and use them to harm others? People have abused and purposefully twisted religion for misguided, usually selfish, reasons. There are, however, many wonderful and beautiful things that can be learned from all religions. Stop hating on religion and put the blame on those who commit hateful acts.

    September 28, 2010 at 5:11 am |
  6. JohninVA

    I am getting bored with this now. Keep enjoying your beliefs, just remember one thing, not everyone wants to have your religions thrust upon them. Be mindful of that. If people would quit trying to talk of their religion and how great their's is compared to others this world might be a better place. I am going to get off here now, I have wasted more time on religion today than I have in years. Have a great day yall!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 5:01 am |
    • Petey

      You came to this page in the first place because you wanted to. Have whatever beliefs you like but don't BS people about your own motives. Nobody is buying it.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:52 am |
  7. Tom

    I'm 36 years old, and my high school world history class religions were covered quite well. After all, how can you study history without the religions that shaped it? Have they thrown all that out in the past 20 years? A separate religion class would have been a waste of time.

    September 28, 2010 at 3:57 am |
    • Petey

      All you need to know is that religion is evil and everything it has influenced is evil. It's not important for you to understand it. Only those who believe in God have to supposed their arguments with evidence. Atheists are exempt from such bourgeois requirements because they have the Correct Opinion.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:50 am |
  8. Tara

    I actually think that what this man is saying makes a lot of sense ! Hes not saying that our children should learn about one faith or belief system but that they should learn about all beliefs .The reason that we have wars in the name of religion is because of the lack of knowledge and respect of others beliefs ...whats wrong with teaching our children about faiths other then our own? Look they are going to grow up and have to make choices as they get older that are right for them and as a parent I want my children to make those choices based upon educated opinions and beliefs...I dont want them to follow blind to any religion even my own !

    September 28, 2010 at 3:44 am |
    • peace2all

      @Tara

      Yes... well said...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:21 am |
  9. Jim

    No, no, a thousand times no. The Separation of Church and State must be absolute. If you have mandatory Bible and religion classes you are inviting the Church into the State's business (public school). If you want mandatory Bible classes send your kids to a religious school. What's next? Allowing Creationism to be taught alongside Evolution in Biology as an "alternate theory"? As an irreligious atheist I would be irate if my child was forced to go to Bible Study. Elective Comparative Religion classes I would be fine with.

    As for the study it doesn't surprise me in the least. Non-believers such as myself have a tendency to look at these religions closely before rejecting their claims. Some have freed themselves from the grasp of Religiosity while others like myself rejected them from the beginning. You didn't even need a study, as a whole the atheists I speak with are more knowledgeable on the Bible and religion than those that follow the "good word".

    September 28, 2010 at 3:43 am |
  10. Norm - no, not that one

    All religions (over two thousand of them) are nothing more than fairy tales.
    Mankind, no matter what the religion, has used them and abused them to the detriment of the rest of society.
    Instead of teaching and preaching them in public schools, people should learn that there are absolutely NO facts or evidence to support ANY groups religious claims. It's time to take religion out of it's "special pedestal" section, in the library, and put it back into "fiction", where it belongs!

    September 28, 2010 at 3:31 am |
    • JohninVA

      so very true!!!!

      September 28, 2010 at 3:45 am |
    • Eduardo

      i couldnt say in better words, agree with you Norm

      September 28, 2010 at 4:40 am |
    • Eduardo

      at least in latin america, government and church are the perfect partners: while government sufocate people, stealing and impoverishing people, they have their partners, the church, to tell people that being poor and suffering is ok. church needs such governments to steal the remaining of the money from the people. government needs church to calm down people, so they can keep stealing....

      September 28, 2010 at 4:43 am |
    • peace2all

      @Eduardo

      Not sure to laugh out loud or cry at your post.... Somehow, on some level it rings true.... However, maybe Educating people will help to stop said atrocities....

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:54 am |
  11. upstate

    why, i am having too much fun without religion

    September 28, 2010 at 3:06 am |
  12. Alex

    Why not mandate courses about other classical mythology?

    Or are you actually claiming that Christianity has a special place that deserves higher recognition?

    September 28, 2010 at 3:00 am |
    • JohninVA

      Let's teach about Greek/Roman mythology. At least there is some substance there.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:02 am |
    • peace2all

      @JohninVA

      Again... given our conversations above..... Not sure how you can be o.k... with teaching Greek/Roman (Mythology).."because at least there is some 'substance' there." and sooooo against world religions that have dramatic affects on political, social, cultural, economical, etc... decisions world-wide...

      Still not getting you(understanding) you just yet..... @JohninVA

      Peace....

      September 28, 2010 at 4:19 am |
    • JohninVA

      Because it is interesting, I love learning about Greek/Roman mythology. I will sit and watch movies/shows all day long about this subject. Another reason is, its not being crammed down my throat like modern religion is. In those days there were supposedly multiple gods to give praise to. Now there is just one and his "son". There was actual depictions of those gods, every image I have seen of the modern "god" looks surprisingly like Zeus/Jupiter. Also, you probably don't understand me because I type things as they enter my thought processes.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:44 am |
    • peace2all

      @JohninVA

      No problem.... I think I am understanding you a bit better now. What it seems like is that 'you' have 'your' personal preferences regarding said subjects... i.e.... Greek/Roman mythology. Just understand that for 'some' if that was 'crammed down their throats' as you say.... They would be extremely bored with it....

      Good talking with ya'

      Peace....

      September 28, 2010 at 4:52 am |
    • sockeyerama

      @Alex: Probably because insights and knowledge about classical mythology lost any practical benefit as they have become “dead” religions. Now, if you were visiting Sparta 2500 years ago, information on these religions could have been very valuable. As for teaching Christianity, since there are still many Christians still around, this would be practical information. Witches seem to be on the increase, so I would imagine this should be taught too.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:09 am |
    • sockeyerama

      I'm going to have to retract that bit about the non-value of Greek mythology a little. Modern democratic principals have their roots in Athenian mythology and some of modern religion can be traced to Greek mythology also. Hard to ignore it. And – it's fun.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:21 am |
    • Petey

      You mean your school doesn't ALREADY teach Greek and Roman mythology? When I was in school (not really all that long ago) that was one of the many required parts of the Ancient Civ syllabus. No wonder kids today are so stupid.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:02 am |
    • Petey

      Sorry to post again but I'm absolutely floored to learn that kids no are longer required to study ancient mythology in history class. It makes me wonder how much else they're not studying.

      In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say that anyone who has not studied Greek and Roman mythology is per se ignorant of both history and religion, and that their opinions on historical and religious topics should be categorically ignored. I mean, I am truly frightened to realize this. Do you go to a public school? Because I knew public education sucked but I didn't know it sucked that badly.

      This is really flabbergasting. Wow. Just, wow. This country really IS screwed, isn't it.

      Wow.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:08 am |
    • Frogist

      @Petey: I was going to ask that myself. I know I studied greek and roman myths back in school when I was 11 or so. I too am a bit taken aback by the fact that this is no longer taught.
      @Johnny in VA: My dad used to tell me stories about the Labors of Hercules as bedtime stories. I loved them too. Also I agree with peace2all on this – learning about the history and philosophy of different religions can only help us in understanding the world around us.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  13. BF2350

    Over the past few days, I have read the comments and opinions posted here. It is interesting that the majority of persons posting are professed atheists or agnostics. Many have stated that a person who believes in God is ignorant. Well, then, I am glad that I am ignorant. The Bible says that man's wisdom is foolishness. I can tell you from personal experience that once a person has been touched by the Living God they know it and there is no one in this world who can convince them otherwise. I tell my non-believing friends that if I am wrong, then I have lost nothing. But, if I am right, then I have gained everything. It has always amused me that when people experience a life-threatening situation, be they atheists or agnostics, most will cry out to God to save them. The ole saying that there are no atheists in foxholes seems to be true. It is not my place to try to convince anyone that God is real; that is the job of the Holy Spirit. As a believer, I am to tell others what God has done for me. I also tell my friends that Jesus is not ashamed of me because He died for me and saved me, and I am certainly not ashamed of Him. As for the word "Christian," it has come to mean things other than what it should mean. When I am asked, I state that I am a believer and follower of Jesus, the Christ. I also dislike the word "religion" for religion is man-made with accompanying man-made rules. Jesus has set me free and I absolutely refuse to let man put me into bondage. The Bible states that if one truly seeks God, they will find Him. I would encourage non-believers to put Him to the test, to do it sincerely, and see what might happen in your life. You just might be surprised. As for those who are in a position of leadership in churches and other places of worship, the Bible states that God holds them to a higher standard. In other words, the Shepard is held to a higher standard than the sheep that he or she is supposed to lead, and God will deal with them accordingly. I can tell you that I would hate to be those people. Isn't it interesting that their sins do not stay hidden, but come out for the world to see. I do not judge them, God will do that. May God bless you.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:57 am |
    • Q

      Referencing Pascal's Wager and the no atheist in foxholes comment only serves to further illustrate that a vast majority of religious faith is born of a fear of mortality and little if anything else.

      "Well, then, I am glad that I am ignorant."

      What more could be said?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:11 am |
    • peace2all

      @BF2350

      Ahhhhh you trotted out the old 'Pascal's Wager' argument from Philosophy. " If I am right.... great.... If I am wrong... I have lost nothing."

      However, you aren't taking into account the part about being wrong and losing nothing...i.e.... What if... when you die, you ARE wrong and Literal Christianity as you have believed... Is WRONG...maybe it is reincarnation, maybe you ...any number of an almost infinite number of possibilities that might happen should you survive physical death.

      Including God being so p*i*s*s*e*d off at the Christians and their holier than thou baloney that God throws you in hell, because you soooooooo distorted his actual meaning.... That IS a possibility...?

      So, before you go about rambling on about the old God and Jesus Saves thing......

      Maybe think and reason a bit before you speak.... Saying you have been 'touched' by the living God... How do you know it was God...? Prove it...?

      No bible verses... and please.. don't say.... I just know, because i had this 'feeling'...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 3:16 am |
    • peace2all

      @ Q

      Again we are in agreement...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 3:18 am |
    • Jim

      Both Ted Williams and Pat Tillman are that the "no atheists in foxholes" line is a bunch of crap, along with many others who are not so famous.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:48 am |
    • peace2all

      @Jim

      Apologies..... but I can't tell what you are saying exactly, nor if you are in agreement with what both me and @Q wrote, or in agreement with @BF2350...

      If you are still around.... would love to hear your thoughts elaborated on a bit...!

      Thanks...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:15 am |
    • sockeyerama

      BF2350, You have just offered me some information on your beliefs. I am now aware of and partly educated on your belief system. What’s so wrong with that? With these insights I can make decisions in regard to whether you’ll be able to make it to work next Sunday morning, and I might be careful to not curse openly around you even if expressed in good cheer. Helpful information if we are to get along.
      Now if we work together or are neighbors, it would be in your interest to know something of my spiritual beliefs, scant as they are. If we’re next door neighbors, putting a 10 foot fluorescent cross on your front lawn might put me off. You might want to know this before going to Home Depot.
      Seems that you’re trying to defend your faith and maybe even trying to convince me embrace it as mine. All I’m really suggesting is that a little reciprocal respect and understanding and maybe even some formal education is in order.
      BTW, do you feel that you could teach a religious studies course and remain objective?

      September 28, 2010 at 4:35 am |
    • Jim

      Oh, I was replying to the BF post, providing proof of two famous men who served in the military and in war and were both atheists. Sorry about that.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:42 am |
    • peace2all

      @ sockeyerama

      Well said my friend... actually made me laugh out loud (10 ft. flourescent cross).. 🙂

      Peace....

      September 28, 2010 at 4:47 am |
    • peace2all

      @ Jim

      No problem..... Interesting bit of 'no atheist's in fox hole's' trivia...... Really Pat Tillman and Ted Williams...? Very interesting...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:49 am |
    • KC

      I have never cried out for god in any situation. Do I think there may be some force out there? Maybe. But I don't think one religion has gotten it right. I don't think Muhammad or Jesus or any of the other 'prophets' were sent from god or prophets of a god. I think this god has no influence on our daily lives whatsoever. The only thing I have found that I agree with closest is deism (something some of our Founding Fathers were). If you really want to read the bible without the religious connotations – read the Jefferson Bible. It's about 20 + pages because Jefferson took out all the mysticism and religious connotations and just left what happened. But I refuse to follow such a petty, jealous, spiteful god. This all powerful god people worship seems like he's the controller in a giant Sims game. Picking and choosing to help these people, but not those people. I'm not so sure the bible is correct at all. I'm not going to believe in a god that at his merest whim will destroy all of mankind because he's tired of us. Or a god that would command someone to kill his own child just to test his faith. Or a god who would murder innocent children. Sorry not for me but you can have it.

      September 28, 2010 at 6:49 am |
  14. JohninVA

    School is supposed to teach children real items such as, history, math, reading, writing, and science. It is not supposed to teach them works of mythical fiction. Yes I know, schools use fiction all the time, but that is for its literary values, not as a means of worship. By teaching children that the fiction in the Bible, Torah, or Quran (choose which ever, they all say the same damn thing in one way or the other), you are just educating the next generation of people to go to war for those ideals. It will take some time, but religion is already starting to collapse. I for one, and this is just my opinion people, hope to live to see the day that it does. If I die before it does, rest in the knowledge that my body will be put to good use fertilizing the ground, because that is the end, nothing more nothing less!!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:46 am |
    • Antsache

      You, like so many other people, have missed the point of this article. He is not encouraging the teaching of "faith." He does not suggest that we teach our children to worship in school. He suggests that we teach them what different religions believe and their traditions not so that they can be better believers, but so that they can understand how the world works. Religion is a "real" thing in the sense that the vast majority of the world's population believes in it in some form or other. You're talking about giving children a practical education, but how can you expect them to have a practical understanding of the world around them if they don't understand something that is such a huge part of life for so many people? How can any of them fully conceptualize the Middle East without understanding the religious conflict there, and how can they understand the religious conflict without having learned about the religions involved? You can teach children about Communism without making them Communists – the same is true of religion.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:59 am |
    • JohninVA

      @Antsache. Why teach it at all? Religion is based solely on an unseen god figure that created the world,which by biblical accounts, nobody was there to witness it, so how can you believe something that can't be proven biblically. Science has proven time and time again, that the universe was created by a huge explosion sending out all type of debris that later settled into orbit around stars. New universes are still being created because of this. and also, man was created, man evolved into what we are today. In all honesty, you would have your kids be taught about the different religions from around the world, when all those books were written by people who were probably the first people to discover hallucinagenic plants and used their psychedelic experiences to become writers of the time.

      September 28, 2010 at 3:22 am |
    • peace2all

      @JohninVA

      After reading your response to @Antsache..... I had to re-read @Antsache's post..... And, John.... Did you 'totally' miss on purpose everything that he/she said.... Or, just didn't understand it .. or didn't get it...?

      Because it seems to me, in my opinion, you have totally missed the absolutely on target and relevant points that I believe @Antsache so eloquently asserted and the basis for this whole article...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 3:43 am |
    • JohninVA

      I, like many people in this world, was forced to go to church when I was a kid. I am lucky enough to have married a woman (who is Catholic) to respect my beliefs and not force any religion on our children. I would extremely angered if a school forced any of this crap on my kids. I agree with Jim (see a few comments below), if it was offered as an elective and not forced upon the kids, that would be fine. Religion has no place in any public school! If it is ever brought to my kids school and they were forced into it, I would take them out and home school them (which is quite extreme because I really don't agree with that either)! Religion is a choice, not a mandatory class!!

      September 28, 2010 at 3:59 am |
    • peace2all

      @JohninVA

      Hey... I totally get what you are saying and understand. I would just suggest that teaching a Comparative World Religion course, would be about education.... not converting.

      Religion is so interconnected to politics, economics, multi-cultural understanding, etc.. and the list goes on... That I, just believe that Education is better than ignorance...

      Thanks for chatting with me John...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:12 am |
  15. Ronnie Harper

    I disagree. Philosphy and the Socratic learning process should be made part and parcel of all education – a strong study of the humanities, world literature, and history should be pre-requisites. They should be thoroughly studied and then students at all levels should be able to pass tests on these subjects before earning any sort of diploma. It is a love of knowledge that will overcome the disease of the mind that is religion. Religion is a pox on humanity, the single cause for all the suffering and unhappiness on this planet and teaching courses on it falls on deaf ears for all but the most learned and studied people.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:34 am |
    • Frogist

      @Ronnie Harper: Exactly! "It is a love of knowledge that will overcome..." Yes, a curiousity for the world around us and a need to seek out more than what is offered is so important. I absolutely agree with you on this.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  16. HJC

    Teaching ABOUT various religions (rather than teaching the religions themselves) isn't a bad idea, but we need to frame this failure in a larger context. Americans also can't tell you how many justices are on the Supreme Court, where most of the important countries are located on a map of the world, and on, and on, and on, and on. The most powerful nation on Earth has its leaders chosen by some of the most ignorant and uneducated people on Earth. Now, that's scary!

    September 28, 2010 at 2:33 am |
    • peace2all

      @ HJC

      Agreed... well said...

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 3:37 am |
  17. nana

    Education is knowledge you can't begin to address differences if you don't know what the differences are. High school students know little to nothing about the influence of relegion on ethics, principles and world government. Religous classes in relationship to it's contribution and influence on society is necessary.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:27 am |
    • peace2all

      @nana

      Now that particular post by you is one I concur with....

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 3:07 am |
  18. JP

    Church and State separate, it's what made America so great... Face it, even if they tried to be fair and unbiased, we all know it's gonna end up being christian views hammered into the minds of children that wouldn't be able to fully grasp and understand the subject in full detail....

    September 28, 2010 at 2:25 am |
  19. Daws

    Almost but no cigar... do philosophy courses instead, covers all the same areas and then some. Particularly you can learn something about ethics more than: "God said not to", which might be important... And then there's critical thinking which will carry you a lot further in life than rote memorization of religious facts.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:21 am |
  20. (oo)

    *shouldn't

    September 28, 2010 at 2:20 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.