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. Britney Spears into pruning hooks

    By the way, is there any place we can read what the questions were on that test (the one where religious people did so badly compared to non-religious people)?

    September 26, 2013 at 3:45 am |
  2. Mike P

    I'm actually not opposed to this in theory, so long as (1) no one religion is elevated above another and (2) kids aren't forced to act as members of any particular religion, either in class or as homework. This could probably be best done as a subtopic in a sociology class, though. Then again, given the cruel things that kids can say, do we really want to open up people's religions to scrutiny in the classroom? Are we going to force kids to identify themselves as believers (of whatever particular faith) or agnostics? I think there's far more harm than good that could come of this.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:31 pm |
  3. Dave

    American schools DO NOT need more religion. Although I was raised in a Catholic family, I’d have to agree with Chris about how Christians use this argument as a vehicle to transport their beliefs into naïve young children. If a child is constantly being taught a certain thing then that child never even had a chance to think for himself/herself. Yes believers support religion in schools because it’ll show their child the right path but kids come from all sorts of backgrounds these days. The education system shouldn’t be responsible for a child’s personal beliefs. If a parent wants their child to have a more thorough understanding of religion then maybe that parent should spend some time after school or on the weekend teaching their kid religion. Students can believe in one god, two gods, or none at all but school is not the place to practice your religious rituals. Praying is done amongst a group of other believers or in one’s own solitude so it is not fair to force certain practices in school when students have so many different demographics.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:22 pm |
  4. Lori

    BIBLE Basic Instructions Before Life Ends.

    December 2, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  5. Chuck The Canuck

    They need courses in religion just like they need courses in alchemy.

    October 17, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  6. cassie

    Schools do need to practice values and consideration for each other. To the extent that this is a part of any religion, it should be taught. But if, for example, you try to teach comparative religion, you will have teo be very careful who you pick to do the teaching. I think it's a subject that is really too complex at the elementary school level and must wait until minds mataure. However, as a society we do try to practice the 'Golden Rule" Do unto other as ye would have them do nto you. I see no harm in teaching that basic principle of humn civilized behavior.

    October 17, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  7. Iqbal khan


    October 16, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
    • Xugos

      I'm a muslim, and your post is a very great nuisance to me. You are probably nothing more than a troll, CNN should ban your IP for fanning flames of hate on these boards. NO WE DON'T WANT TO WATCH YOUR DUMB VIDEO.

      October 16, 2010 at 4:43 pm |
  8. LiberateUs

    Atheism is corrupting humanity!

    October 15, 2010 at 10:57 pm |
    • Muneef

      That is a fact.

      October 17, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  9. LiberateUs

    Great, now atheists are spreading their propaganda on CNN. Face it: Atheism is full of lies and blind logic. Before we know it, nations will become totalitarian, and every religious person will be shot on sight. Atheism = Nazism

    October 15, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  10. Chris

    This is just another excuse for Christians to weasel their beliefs into the education system (specifically in the area of history/civics). The objective role of religion in history and government is already thoroughly explained in the current social studies curriculum and done so in a secular, non-partisan manner. The "demand" for more comprehensive studying in this area is nothing but superficial and hypothetical. It is a demand that exists solely in the heads of the religious. If allowed to import their religion into the curriculum, the Christians will fill it with their dogma and use it as a vice to transparently propagate their own views and interests. Bottom line, we do not need any more schooling standards regarding religion than we already have, and anyone who tells you otherwise, most likely, has unscrupulous, ulterior motives.

    October 14, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • LiberateUs

      Why are there more school shootings at public schools?

      October 15, 2010 at 7:13 pm |
  11. Carmen

    Rwhatever, its true that its not about religion , it's having a relationship with God , that i love. U wouldn't understand, but don't judge me either. If u don't believe thats ur choice. But give us the same rights to pray if we want to n private and in school early n the morning even b4 classes starts. Were not bothering anyone and it's the students choice to pray or not. You may not believe but i believe the prayers of the righteous person availith much.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:31 am |
  12. Carmen

    I think bringing praying back to school is an excellent idea because i am a believer, but i also like to respect the choice of the unbeliever and if they don't want to pray then so be it. For those that pray can go to another room n pray then head to class or for those that don't pray can go to another room for a few minutes. We have Jewish holidays off, n I'm not jewish. I'm not complaining i'm just saying what happen to being Just and fair. That's respecting the persons' belief's and right to pray if they wish to. I feel America is becoming somewat a hypocrite. I thought we had freedom in this great nation of ours.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:20 am |
  13. thinkpoint

    Open the windows, it's suffocating in here!

    October 14, 2010 at 12:14 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.