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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. Jo

    There are many people with many different religions and beliefs so to try to introduce religion courses would seem more harm than good in the long run. If people wanted to learn more, either go to a church or take classes that the given religious faction may offer. It would allow a person to learn privately and not in a public place where they may be ridiculed for taking that class.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • NL

      Jo, posting at 2:33 pm-
      Any course on religion being offered by a church is likely to be biased, right? If they are teaching about their own faith then they will only give the most glowing account of it, and if they are teaching about a rival faith, then they will certainly not portray it in too good a light. A state committee made up with members of all faiths can come up with a fair school curriculum that does not put one faith before another, I think.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm |
    • peace2all

      @NL

      Well said... THAT I agree with.....

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @NL

      Do you really want a committee setting curriculum for a religion course? Look at what the believers are doing to science courses – I can only imagine the "bun fight"... And over in the corner would be the lone aetheist, being completely ignored and trying to remember why s/he decided to work with the believers... Ooooops, looks like I just played the "poor picked on christian card" – sorry!!

      Much easier to add religious studies to english classes as just another book/myth.

      September 28, 2010 at 5:23 pm |
    • peace2all

      @HotAirAce

      Hey Ace..! I don't care where they put it...as part of English lit. courses, etc....

      I just would like to see the comparative world religion classes taught.

      Peace...

      September 28, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      I could live with comparitive religion course provided religion is not presented as absolute truth and "fringe" beliefs, including aetheism, are presented/discussed/compared as well. I'm quite confident that when/if aetheism is presented fairly/neutrally, most thinking people will chose aetheism. Clinging to religion is very much a learned habit!

      September 28, 2010 at 11:32 pm |
    • peace2all

      @HotAirAce

      We are in agreement, per usual.....

      Peace...

      September 29, 2010 at 1:35 am |
  2. HotAirAce

    I have no problem with religion if taught along with other myths – kind of like "Those silly scandanavians believed in Thor, and after a few hundred years of enlightenment, a zillion others believed in JC and Moh – what were they thinking?" The instance someone suggests (in a public school) that religion is fact, is when I 'phone the lawyers.

    September 28, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
    • Petel2

      Zeus lasted for 7000 years, I doubt xtianity will make it past 2500 years. Too bad most of us won't get to see it vanish.
      ..
      Crazy, a Jesus created by the Catholic church, yet never existed – just a myth they copied 2000 years ago.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  3. Luke

    Keep that garbage out of schools. Kids should be learning useful things, not fairy tales. And stop putting your damn mug on every article. What is this, Hints From Heloise?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Wes

    I am an agnostic after having gone to a Catholic high school. If were not studying Theology for four years, I would not have a clear understanding of other religions, not just Christianity. Theology should be in public schools, not a Bible study or prayer group. Our kids need to broaden their views, not have dogmatic views. Do not confuse religion with Theology.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm |
  5. David Johnson

    Just say no to drugs and religion. Religion is the opiate of the masses!

    Make your school a religion free zone!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:59 pm |
  6. David Johnson

    TEACH ABSTINENCE ONLY, in the religious classes!

    Have the kids sign abstinence pledges, pledging they will not embrace any religion, ever!

    September 28, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
    • Wes

      Thought provoking. I would suggest this practice to politicians.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
  7. IamWormFood and So RU

    Yes, teach all the different religions, so that people can finally understand that they are all fake. If you still want to continue to follow like sheep (Bah!), then keep it to yourselves. Keep religion far from our political arena. "Religion – Don't leave home with it."

    September 28, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  8. parkca01

    take the quiz yourselves.

    http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/

    Religion needs to be taught to be understood.

    September 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
  9. Natalie

    I dont see what would be the big deal to have religious courses in schools. it's not pressuring them to choose a religion its just teaching them the difference in our mulit religious world. It would also be good because it would explain that not everyone muslum is a terrorist. it would explain the truth behind each religion instead of having all these religious nuts trying to shove their beliefs down your throat. its just more education for everyone.

    September 28, 2010 at 11:23 am |
    • brad

      "....instead of having all these religious nuts trying to shove their beliefs down your throat."

      Natalie, if you're like the rest of us, you willingly sit in front of the TV for hours in a catatonic state, letting advertisers shove their messages down your throat. But the advertisers do it in a subtle way so we hardly notice we're being manipulated.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:35 am |
    • David Johnson

      The problem is, that the believers in these different religions believe only they will go to heaven. The other faiths are destined for hell. I think this will increase the animosity between the religions.

      I am not convinced the Muslims are peaceful. I don't know if I would want my kid being taught that they are.

      Math and science are provable. They are useful.

      I think abstinence only, should be taught, for religion. Showing the kids how silly religion is, makes sense.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Sorry, my BS detected just pegged! Do you really believe "it would explain the truth behind each religion.."? Truth defined by who? The only truth here is that noone agrees on the truth of any other religion, except us aethesists 'cause we're smarter (survey said!) and know that none of them are true!

      September 29, 2010 at 6:25 pm |
  10. NL

    This article reminds me of the saying that, if you only knew what went on in a slaughter house you'd never touch meat again.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  11. David Johnson

    My house:

    My kid: "Dad, little Billy says Jesus is coming back and the Christians are going to float up in the air."

    Me: Hmmm.... What do you think?

    My kid: "I told him not to hold his breath. It's been 2000 years."

    Me: "Yes. Why do you think He hasn't come back?"

    My kid: "I think it's 'cause he is dead, dad"

    Me: "I really love that kid!"

    September 28, 2010 at 10:26 am |
    • NL

      Yup, 2000 years of sitting on the edges of their seats sure explains just how tight that region of the body is on most Christians, eh? 😉

      September 28, 2010 at 10:37 am |
  12. Ryan

    I fully support religious education, but without an equal emphasis on its effect on history such classes could easily attract dogmatics and becomes merely platforms for their ranting and attempts at conversion or indoctrination

    September 28, 2010 at 10:25 am |
  13. marblenc

    Realizing they are ignorant about religion, even their own, some Americans are now unsure if Obama really is a secret Muslim trying to subvert Christianity and impose a godless Communist government – or if he was just trying to ensure health care for the needy. http://www.onelineheadline.com

    September 28, 2010 at 10:19 am |
  14. Adam

    CNN, stop publishing asinine opinions columns – this is not why I (nor many others) visit your site. We are here to read the NEWS (hopefully in an unbiased light...though I know that's impossible). I do not care nor do I need to know the opinions of self-deluded "scholars" who believe they know what's best for the rest of us.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:12 am |
    • HotAirAce

      if you don't want to hear "asinine opinions" why are reading a beliefs blog that is intended to discuss religion – an inherently assinine subject?

      September 29, 2010 at 6:20 pm |
  15. Mattm

    There is one true God, and He is the God of the universe. The one who created the world 6000 years ago, the one who created man after HIS own image. He created man to worship Him and bring honor and glory to HIM. Man fell away from God and was damned to an eternity in Hell, but God through His abundant grace and mercy sent His only son, born of a virgin, to bear the sins of the WHOLE world. Jesus Christ died on a cruel cross bearing your sin and mine, forsaken by His Father and hated by men. Praise God He rose again and is at the right hand of God interceding for you and me so you and I won't have to spend an eternity in Hell separated from God. There is one condition though and that is surrendering our lives to God, letting the blood of Jesus wash away our sins, and living a regenerated life. Friends I plead with you, repent of your sins and let Jesus Christ cleanse you of all unrighteousness and fully surrender your heart to God. This is the only way that you can be saved and the only way that we can spend an eternity in Heaven, where we will be praising and worshiping God. The punishment for rejecting Jesus Christ and and living a life of sin is eternal punishment in Hell. Please repent of your sins and surrender your lives to Jesus Christ before it is too late.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:11 am |
    • NL

      If there is one thing that is all the power, intelligence, and is as as eternal as we can define, it is the universe, in it's entirety, and completely natural.

      According to your reasoning, who damned mankind to an eternity in Hell if not God himself? So, he infects us first, it seems, and then comes by later with Jesus as the cure to this same disease. That's very convenient, wouldn't you say?

      September 28, 2010 at 10:33 am |
    • David Johnson

      @Mattm

      What proof do you have, that there is a god. How do you know the god of Islam isn't the one true god? Or any of a number of Hindu gods?

      September 28, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  16. David Johnson

    Prothero said, "t 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."

    Yes, let's use precious school time to teach fairy tales. Don't add math and science classes. The United States must lead the world in religious idiocy.

    Christian Right Mom to Christian Right Father: "Little Billy is learning about that Muslim god, in school."

    Christian Right Dad to Christian Right Mom: "It's Obama's fault! Where is my gun? Where are my teeth? I'll be in hell with my back broke, before Billy will learn about that Muslim religion. Help me find my bible. I feel Jesus in my heart.

    God people, let the schools teach the skills and knowledge needed to compete in the world. Get billy and Betty into math. Not some silly god.

    Teach your kids to love math and science. They will repay you with discoveries, that will help you live longer.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:10 am |
    • brad

      I agree that more math and science should be taught to our kids in school. But who's going to teach them to use science in a humane way? Science, we have discovered, can be used for good or evil. And science will not teach the very concepts of good and evil.

      September 28, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • David Johnson

      @brad

      There is not a thing that I am aware of, that can not be used for good or evil. Including and especially religion.

      Good or evil often depends on perspective. It is subjective.

      The U.S. developed the atomic bomb, and then used it on an enemy. The U.S. did not feel evil for doing so.

      People have been tortured and killed in an effort to "save their immortal souls". The people didn't feel evil for torture and killing. They felt it would be what Jesus would do.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Brad, "who is going to teach them to use science in a humane way?" How about us aetheists? Name another group that has not used science to harm others?

      September 29, 2010 at 6:17 pm |
  17. Anon

    Interestingly enough, all this quiz proves is that atheist and agnostics are on average smarter than the religious. There are a great many reasons for this result in today's society. Intelligent students are put into higher learning classes where most teachers are also agnostic/atheist and strongly discourage students from religion. Sooner or later every higher learning class forces students to put aside any religious beliefs they may have a play the part of an agnostic/atheist as evolution is an assumed fact imbedded in every scientific discussion. As one of a handful of religious students in the "smart" classes, I experienced all of this first hand. It is assumed that if you are intelligent, you believe in evolution and thus are agnostic/atheist, even though this logic is deeply flawed. Evolution does not exclude a creator just as religion does not exclude evolution on some level as a possibility. Science and religion have always been closely bound throughout history until roughly the last couple of decades. I am smart enough to know that I don't know everything, and never will. Many people in today's world are too arrogant to accept that fact.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:03 am |
    • NL

      Anon-
      I don't think that you have to be smarter at all, but I do think that you have to be more curious, and have an interest in religion to become atheist and to remain one. To remain happy with one's faith requires that you don't think too deeply about how it works, and you certainly don't spend time wondering if another faith may be superior to your own.

      Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:17 am |
  18. Bill McGrath

    I'm amazed at the number of people who missed the point of this article! I'm an atheist, but I am not opposed to teaching ABOUT religion. That is different from teaching someone to believe in religion. It is reasonable to me that an objective understanding of the tenets of the various belief systems might lead more young people to disavow them. The author's point was that we need to understand what drives members of the various sects; he does not ask us to embrace their beliefs. Knowledge is never a bad thing unless, of course, you're trying to brainwash some kid into buying into your own belief system.

    September 28, 2010 at 10:01 am |
    • David Johnson

      Every religious parent is trying to brainwash their child, to believe in the parent's god. All children are born atheist.

      When you are teaching about religion, by all means treat the Muslim religion, Hindu religion, Buddhism, and Judaism lightly. Skim over them, for they are of no consequence.

      But when you come to Christianity, slow your voice. Be reverent. Let your tone and inflection show your belief.

      Do you really think this won't happen?

      Are the children going to draw pictures of the religious figures? Jesus riding on a colt? Muhammad riding on a winged horse...
      Okay, scrap the drawing. We don't want the Muslims going berserk when their kid wants to put his drawing on the fridge.

      September 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm |
  19. David

    Yes!!!! Lets teach religion in public schools. Lets teach about the inquisitions, the dark ages, the crusades, the support for Hitler and definitely lets teach about the alter boy molestations. I think its a great idea to teach religion in schools, as long as you are teaching the hypocrisies, and stupidity of believing in fairy tales....

    September 28, 2010 at 9:43 am |
    • Petel2

      "According to some authors, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was a faithful Roman Catholic. The same authors maintain that the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian organizations have conducted a deliberate campaign of disinformation, painting Hitler as a pagan or atheist, with a view to dissociate themselves from Nazism and absolve Christianity of every trace of responsibility for the atrocities that Hitler visited upon the world"
      ..
      Hitler was never excommunicated from the Catholic Church, which means, that, according to Church law, he remained a Catholic until his death. After all, the catholics hated jews since they claim the jews killed their jc. A jc, I might add, of their own creation. Odd how jc came out in RCC writings after the fact while the Dead Sea Scrolls which were written before, during and after JC (in the same region, no less) had no writings of jc. Seems all that spectacular work wasn't verified.
      ..
      Needless to say, Stalin and Hitler had good xtian upbringing.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:02 am |
  20. David

    Yes! Lets teach religion in public schools. Lets teach about the inquisitions, the dark ages, the crusades, the support for Hitler and definitely lets teach about the alter boy molestations. I think its a great idea to teach religion in schools, as long as you are teaching the hypocrisies, and stupidity of believing in fairy tales.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:42 am |
    • Anon

      Hitler was a Catholic in name alone, anyone who knows Christianity knows this. Hitler tried to make himself the messiah of Germany, forcing his subjects to worship him just as Stalin did. No Christian desires worship from other men.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:10 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.