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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. Skeptical

    I see the author's point that educating people about world cultures/religions is necessary, but rest assured that if such classes were mandated below the university level, they would be (a) taught by religious fundamentalists, and (b) in well over half the regions in this country, the course would NOT be taught in a way designed to promote understanding or tolerance, but would become a class in Christian indoctrination. A class on world cultures, fine, but not a course on religion in public schools.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:53 am |
    • MuDdLe

      I just don't see any reason for thinking it inevitable that the actual teaching would morph into indoctrination into some religion.

      I teach World Religions (as well as a variety of courses in philosophy and logic) at a public university. My aim is to teach my students how to think critically and carefully in assessing competing religious truth claims, and also to come to see how a reasonable person might come to embrace even those religious beliefs that my students do not accept. There is a clear distinction between education and indoctrination, and any good teacher will recognize where that line is drawn.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:07 am |
    • Skeptical

      MuDdle–I *absolutely* agree that a World Religions class belongs at the university level, and that it is almost always taught by people who are well-schooled in the topic and who encourage critical thinking. However, I live in Texas (albeit in an enlightened enclave of TX)–take my word for it, in the South, most elementary school or middle school (and probably many high school) religion courses will be heavily biased toward Christianity.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:17 am |
  2. Katie

    Although other cultures should be studied, I see this as another opportunity for Muslims to try to convert our kids to Islam. No mention will ever be made about the Quoran demanding that infidels be killed to further the spread of Islam. I'll teach my children religion at home thank you.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
    • David Johnson

      Or another opportunity for Christians to convert Muslims...

      September 28, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  3. elgeevz

    Frankly, I have far more respect for individuals who are somehow inclined to "just do the right thing" than I have for those who need the fear of postmortem punishment in order to live even halfway decent lives.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:49 am |
    • Steve

      So your level of respect you show to someone depends on that person's origin of their own morals and behavior? Not all people of whatever faith are good people and not all good people are people of a particular faith – including atheists and agnostics.

      How about respecting one's beliefs no matter what they are as long as they are a good, decent, hardworking, respectful person? By disrespecting people whose actions are good, solely because they are of religious faith – you yourself spread the intolerance that most accuse people of religion for.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:02 am |
    • elgeevz

      You are right, of course: individuals should be judged on their actions rather than their beliefs. But looking back on my 78 years, the most honest, decent, and benevolent individuals that I have known were not at all religious. On the other hand, a horrendous lie told by a psalm-singing Baptist coworker who believed that I was after his job cost me my own job, my life-savings, and my good name. As a result, I have lived as an outcast for nearly 25 years. So I have very good reason to distrust religionists.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  4. joe

    Wow... this is a real hornets nest. Personally, I don't think school is the right place to learn any kind of religion. I know that it's easier said than done, but I think that the extent of learning anything about religion in school should be limited to "Everyone has their own religious beliefs and should be respected likewise." End of religion lesson. If you want to learn more... I agree with Davenla's response above.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  5. schnekv

    How about we focus first on teaching kids how to do stuff like, hmmmmm, maybe math?? Or maybe we could work on spelling, grammar, critical thinking skills, reading, and all those other skills that our educational system failed to impart on our youth. I see too many children who are just (and there's no nicer word in my opinion) stupid! And why are they stupid? Because, on so many levels and for many reasons, our government can't get their s*%t together when it comes to education! So, no thanks on the bible teaching in public school...that's just silly.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:47 am |
  6. MuDdLe

    Saw Prothero on Colbert and thought he held his own–despite having to play the straight man. 😉

    There, he said that the world is "furiously religious." He's right. An estimated 80% of the world's population professes belief in some sort of supernatural or transcendent reality. (And the remaining 20% is a mixed bag, including agnostics, atheists, and people who may well hold to some religious belief or other but are unaffiliated). And, as we see, right or wrong, religious beliefs play an important role in world politics and diplomacy. If for no other reason, this is sufficient for defending World Religions as a legitimate subject of study.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:44 am |
  7. Yolonda

    Yes schools do need not only religion they need GOD. The problems that we have in schools now we did not have when students could pray. I don't care what other people beliefs are. If you don't want to pray don't! But don't stop others from praying. No one is forcing religion or GOD on anyone! That's one good think about GOD he gives free will. But Remember this one thing. Everyone must die. So where will you spend eternity? It won't kill you to give GOD a try. When all else fells my GOD will provide. I love the LORD.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:42 am |
    • schnekv

      @Yolands: You said, "The problems that we have in schools now we did not have when students could pray."

      What in the world makes you think that you can draw causality there?? How about variability over time in the quality of any given educational system, which leads to variability in the behavior of students, including but not limited to fluctuations in the occurrence of rule-following behavior, academic performance, social activities, etc. The right to pray or not pray is meaningless in this equation...you are an example of typical religious ignorance.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:52 am |
    • Steve

      But schnekv you seem to discount without offering evidence to contradict her statement. You, yourself say many factors play a role in the behavior of students. While I don't think that Yolanda is correct in that it is the only thing – I also dispute your notion that it plays none.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:56 am |
    • HotAirAce

      @Yolanda

      I will grant you that schools have changed and that not all change has been good. But why does there have to be prayer in school? Can't those who want to pray do that somewhere between waking up and getting off the school bus? Must it waste all the children's and teacher's time? Can't religious people take responsibility for adherance to their own silliness – or are you just trying to expose others to your brand of truth so that the size of your tribe doesn't shrink?

      September 29, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  8. L. Payne

    NO RELIGION COURSES IN SCHOOL--------WAKE UP RELIGION IS NOT AN EDUCATION NEED, NECESSITY OR LEGAL APPROACH, IT IS PURELY FAMILY DESURES.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:41 am |
  9. Raj

    This guy is nut. People like him will start World War 3.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:32 am |
  10. Dawn

    This article is not about being anti religion or pro religion. whether you're for it or agin it, it exists and affects each and every one of us in some way. i am not a religious person. but i have been educated in school about different religions. it gave me a broader perspective to other cultures and more tolerance toward their religion by knowing their histories and backgrounds. education is the key and education does not mean that we're teaching the religion, we're teaching about the religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:30 am |
  11. Marty in MA

    OH great. Now make the schools teach religion too. Are you nutz?
    Scientific advances are making religion obsolete. I just can't believe in talking snakes, virgin birth, resurrection, 72 virgins in heaven, or an afterlife. What a crock!

    Do something for other people and the planet, anything but religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • Steve

      So Marty, which scientific advances do you speak of? Perhaps you would like to address how accepted science, as time and technology advance, also become disproven and displaced. I take it, based on your mindset, we shouldn't teach science at all because no one knows for certain now what will be disproved later. Should we not learn about Einstein simply because some of his principles are now obsolete?

      Before discounting all religious principles I hope you understand that most science is based on some sort of scientific theory that is accepted without being able to be actually proven. Sounds like a leap of faith to me.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:50 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Steve...

      All intelligent/educated modern day people understand that the scientific method assures, and in fact encourages, the continual investigation into science and natural phenomena. Once we moved past the absolute falsehoods of religous dogma (for example, after the chuch was shown to be wrong by people such Galileo), science has incrementally improved our understanding of our world. On the other hand, religion is mired in 2,000+ year old thinking and actively discouages independent thought, debate and change.

      Said another way, to science, change is a very good thing, while to religion, it is be avoided at all cost.

      September 29, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  12. daveinla

    Comparative religion and philosophy should be taught in our secondary schools,in particular ethics.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  13. Van

    When early man was evolving, the natural animal instincts we had were being lost. The things we were born with in order to survive. with higher brain function came the abilty to reconize our mortality. It seems religion filled the void in these areas so that we could better survive as a group and to try to make sense of the world we lived in. That would make religion part of our eveloution. If mankind survies long enough, no sure thing, we may evolve enough not to need it anymore

    September 28, 2010 at 8:26 am |
  14. Steve

    I continue to find it incredibly ironic that many of the people that routinely cite religion for causing people to act in a certain way are the same ones that will defend other forms of free speech, foul language, violence in video games, TV, and movies by saying that being exposed to such things does not make a person behave a certain way. Which is it??? Also, look at the posts on this thread. The one's that spew the most venomous hate and intolerance are by the one's that don't believe in religion at all.

    I am Christian, though I was never really raised as one. It became a decision I made in my late 20's. I made this decision as I felt having a foundation of moral value was something that was lacking in my life and wanted to be able to pass on a stronger sense of belief (whatever that may be) to my family as well.

    That being said, a true comparative religion course would be a good benefit to just about anyone – including children in school. You want to say children should be conscious of different cultures – but how do you do that without touching on the religion that is the foundation of most of the cultures in the world? All religions attempt to (because all have passages that can not apply to everyday life) instill a sense of value and moral into ones own life. How is that remotely a negative to a child?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:25 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Please do not confuse support for the right to believe/do silly things with support for believing/doing silly things.

      I support your right to believe in the bible(s) and god(s) of your choice – I do not agree that this is a mentally healthy practice.

      September 29, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
  15. Aurora

    Religion in school would be okay if it was a class that went over all religions and had no bias towards one or the other. Regardless of what people like to say, America is not a Christian school. We should not be teaching bias towards one religion or the other. In fact, by law, they'd have to do a world religion class or something. We have seminary at my school for Mormons, and that irks me a bit because we don't have seminary for any other religion, and my school is public.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:23 am |
  16. Reality

    What any good course on religion should have in its content: (for new members only)

    1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment.

    2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan se-cts.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hit-ti-tes, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

    earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    For added "pizz-azz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "fil-icider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedo-ph-iliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    3. Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:

    Adu-lterous preachers, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology,

    4. Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    5. Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – "Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’."

    The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism."

    Current crises:

    The caste system and cow worship/reverence.

    6. Buddhism- "Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow."
    "However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):"

    Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circu-mstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother's womb.

    Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

    Then, apply the Five F rule: "First Find the Flaws, then Fix the Foundations". And finally there will be religious peace and religious awareness in the world!!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 8:19 am |
    • Petel2

      We must all remember that Hitler and Stalin had their childhood and adult development through the catholic church. And let's not forget that the many catholics today won't look at the pope as the villain in a-buse, the liar and deceiver. They blame victims which is what religion has done to deteriorate their reasoning.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:25 am |
    • chuckmartel

      Petey, you are in need of an education. Stalin was schooled in the Orthodox church and from an early age showed contempt for religion in general. Although Hitler went to a Catholic school as a child, he quickly denounced it as soon as he was old enough to defy mom.
      Reality, you write and spend too much time on religous dribble. No reality there.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:44 am |
    • Reality

      chuckmartel,

      Please be specific as you tell us what you consider is "religious dribble".

      September 28, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • Mark Maxey

      @reality

      I really like what you had to say. Have any good books that you recommend on the subjects you just spoke of?

      September 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • Reality

      Mark Maxey

      The names of most contemporary historic Jesus scholars and their books are referenced at earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html .

      The "New Torah for Modern Minds" "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life") can be purchased from amazon.com.

      Although some people do not like Wikipedia, I find Wikipedia's articles are well researched and written. Check the references given in each article to verify the veracity of the information.

      September 28, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
    • LiberateUs

      Petel2, you keep saying the same old Bull-S*** on every religious article. You have a (mental) problem. Also, your stories about being abused by Catholic bishops and priests are as stupid as the person who posts them (you.) Do us all a favor, and take of your tin-foil hat

      October 15, 2010 at 11:02 pm |
    • LiberateUs

      Petel2, you keep saying the same old Bull-S*** on every religious article. You have a (mental) problem. Also, your stories about being abused by Catholic bishops and priests are as stupid as the person who posts them (you.) Do us all a favor, and take off your tin-foil hat

      October 15, 2010 at 11:03 pm |
  17. chuckmartel

    Prothero, your stupidity never ceases to amaze. The last thing this nation of idiots needs is more religion. Try more science you obscenely stupid moron. I have never had any use for religion but I still got all the religous quiz questions in adjacent link right. Not because of religous training but because of solid education and decent history background. Apparently the religous crowd does not do as well as the secular crowd on these religion questions. So what is your point?
    After 8 years of the bible banging smirking chimp administration, you would think the masses of USA would have had enough stinking religion. Now the PC comentators, politicians, and generally people who are not republican/biblebangers are gushing about faith, people of faith and importing religous zeolots who brag about praying 5 times a day or more. Now some PC idiot talking heads from MSN al quizera (?) want retard Bush to make speeches about the peace beauty and love of islam. Insane and stupid. Since when are PC libtards so gaga over religous fundamentalists. This country has deevolved into a high tech middle age type society and idiots like this Prothero are taking us to dark age status.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:17 am |
    • Frogist

      @chuckmartel: Ask yourself this: If your rude, bitter, obnoxious post is an example of how a life that "never had any use for religion" expresses itself, why would anyone want to be without religion?

      September 28, 2010 at 1:03 pm |
  18. Hesus

    You stupid people need to decide whether you want religion in public life or not. When someone has a Christmas tree you ask them to call it Holiday tree ot whatever else, and now you are sayingw e need religion in school. Liberals have drawn most of their ideas form Christinaity whihc they would rarely admit.

    By the way there is no aetheist in a fox hole

    September 28, 2010 at 8:14 am |
    • Frogist

      @Hesus: It is absolutely clear that you know not of what you speak.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  19. Geoff

    All religions:consist of ridiculously crazy, fictional stories accepted as FACT by those incapable of dealing with the uncertainties of life. Someday, religion will be appropriately laughed out of existences by the majority. But until then, believers just make us look primitive as a whole.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:11 am |
    • Steve

      Certainties of life??? Are there any? I am certain that I need to breathe, eat, drink water, sleep. Other than that what true certainties are there? Must be an incredibly simple life you lead my friend

      September 28, 2010 at 9:32 am |
  20. Val

    This is the VERY SELF RIGHTEOUSNESS that thoroughly disgusts me whenever I hear or read this kind of thing. You would do better to worry only about yourself and enjoy life if you can before you die and rot. READ something that disputes religion and you will find a valuable education waiting for you.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:06 am |
    • Val

      my response was directed at JJ saying that nonbelievers will find out they were wrong "when Jesus returns". I must not have hit the "reply" button.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:09 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.