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. hannah

    Well, that's just the dumbest thing I ever heard. And you believed this??
    Religion does NOT belong in public schools....PERIOD!
    FWIW: I moved from New York to an area full of churches and people going to "church" four times a week! When they are not in church, they are mean, inconsiderate, rotten backstabbing people who care nothing for anyone but themselves.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:58 am |
  2. Michael

    Humans have worshiped many things as gods.. The great unknown to us is a god. We have to invent things to explain that which we can't explain. We don't worship the sun or moon anymore, we understand those now. People need to evolve past silly religions which are just very primitive thinking. Hopefully some day we won't have religions anymore. They certainly should not get any time in our kids education unless they are taught to be avoided at all cost.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:57 am |
  3. Donnie

    Many of these responces in this thread are a perfect example of why America is filled with so much ignorance. Nobody wants anything taught outside of their narrow beliefs, even if it would lead to greater global understanding. Athiests want nothing religious taught, the faithful want nothing anti-relious taught, and our kids suffer by having narrow outlooks pushed by people with ignorant adgendas. Then they become the next batch of voters with absolutely no perspective on the world, the real world outside of this commercialized fantasy we live in.

    Quite frankly our education system is a total joke, packed with worthless knowledge and wasted resources. A broader outlook on education would do them some good if we went beyond the same old archaic motions and fears.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:54 am |
    • Petel2

      If we teach religion, then we should teach it as it exists – must be proven. If we can interview a god or jc, do so – otherwise we must tell our children it is unproven as those who worshiped volcanoes. Not doing so, teaches our children that it is OK to fabricate, lie. And we end up with more adults who accept clergy abuse as the fault of victims, ignoring the real crimes of the popes, cardinals and bishops. Let's for once raise good children who can rationalize.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:00 am |
    • Donnie

      Sorry Petel, but your opinion is shortsighted. Most americans are very ignorant to the world around them. Its obvious that our children need to learn more about the world and its cultures...and religion has a large role in that. If you cant understand that then logic is being blocked by your own selfish anti-religion attachments.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:12 am |
    • Petel2

      Ah, teach the psychology of religion and why people need their stuffed animal to fall asleep with – death. I agree.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:18 am |
    • Steve

      Petel2 – What is it you want children to rationalize? Further, if it is rationalization you seek why would exposing anyone to various religions, their origin, their similarities and differences be something you oppose. Only with a foundation as broad as possible can one truly begin to rationalize for one's self.

      On another note as well, why do so many people think that science is so much more concrete than religion. As time passes and parts of the bible are disputed....so do many scientific principles become disproven. Do you honestly think that science as it exists today is the same as it was 100 years ago? Do you think nothing will be disproven 100 years from now? No matter whether you believe in a religion or a science, when it all comes down to it you take a step of faith to believe in it. Some say its rational some say emotional – but no one can say one is wrong or more accurate than the other.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:40 am |
    • Skeptical

      If there was a GUARANTEE that all world religions and their historical consequences/histories would be taught, even as an atheist I would be for such a course. I'll guarantee that such a course would morph into a pro-Christianity, anti-everything else class in 50% of this country.

      September 28, 2010 at 10:20 am |
    • Frogist

      @Donnie: I am competely with you. We cannot be narrow-minded in our approach no matter our religious or non-religious bent.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  4. cpmondello

    In an ideal situation, "World Religions" would be part of a "World History" class, unfortunately, in the USA, there are far too many conservative Christians with power to rewrite history, make whole groups of people second class citizens by making laws against them, and travel the world trying to convert non-Christians through our Military, Politicians, humanitarian efforts and more. For example: In Texas, the school board has voted to remove Thomas Jefferson from the educational program for being a supporter of 'separation of church and state'. These new books will be published and the majority of schools across the USA will be using these same newly published education material. Also in Texas, school books are being re-written to be less anti-Christian and more anti-Muslim, and, "C Street", located in Washington DC, filled with conservative Christian extremists politicians who travel the world, most recently heard about their power in Uganda, where they supported the law makers there who want to make it the death penalty for being gay, and have expressed that those in Uganda need to act fast before they end up like the USA where gay people treated somewhat equal. Do some research. These people would not allow any religion but Christianity to be seen in a good light if taught in classes in the USA, when history proves that, Christianity is the reason so many people in the USA have been motivated to lynch black people, make gays second class citizens, fought against woman being allowed to vote, hunted down and killed others from different denominations, force all other's to pay for their "work" whether in the USA or around the world through tax exempt status, gifts or 'Faith-based initiatives'. Those in power, in all levels or education, government and the private sector, have become far to powerful and hell-bent on making the USA a Christian Nation, there is no way in hell, that they would let Christianity to ever be seen an taught as anything but perfect.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:53 am |
  5. M.A.S.M.A.

    Okay, here's a good one: A nursing student at the Medical University of South Carolina was afraid to go to her roommate's parents' home for the weekend. When asked why, she replied, "Because Catholics grow horns at night." Seriously. She was afraid to be in a Catholic house after dark because horns would grow out of the top of Catholics' heads. This is a woman who was in MEDICAL SCHOOL taking classes in anatomy and physiology. She had been taught that by her Protestant pastor and never questioned the science. Education is KEY! Learn, question and think!

    September 28, 2010 at 7:51 am |
    • nascarlucy

      I would imagine if any type of religious classes were put in the public school, there would be a fight over it. It looks like lawsuits will abound over this issue. Taxpayers will pay for it all as one group will be fighting the others. It goes on and on and on, never ending.

      October 4, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  6. Chaz

    Religions are fantasies, and should be taught by parents in the same breath as Santa and the Easter Bunny. I want my kids learning math, English, science, history, art, music, foreign languages, to they can enrich and open their minds not close them.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:51 am |
    • Frogist

      @Chaz: A large part of english, history and art are better understood by the application of knowledge of religions. How do you expect to fully appreciate literature like Dante's Inferno or A Man For All Seasons, or history like the conflicts within ancient Rome, or Israel-Palestine, or art like the Sistine Chapel, or the Haggia Sophia without having some knowledge of religion. Even math and science can be better appreciated by comparing logical thought vs the concept of faith.
      I think some atheists are too eager to cut religion out of the picture. So much so that they ignore the vast influence it has had and continues to have in comprehending our culture.
      I respect that you don't want people turned into complete religio-robots. I don't want that either. But explaining to people how religions are similar or different and how they came to be and who were the protagonists can never be a bad thing.
      I find it contrary to my belief of what atheism is that so many of atheists who profess logical thought and knowledge are against the idea of having an education about religion.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
  7. Mitchell

    Separation of church and state. Religious views of any kind, in my opinion should not be taught in public schools. If one wants to learn about religion of any kind, they should do it on their own time and not use the public school system to push it on children.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  8. hookman

    Christ was against religion also. He came to educate us, and set things straight, and provide salvation to those who believe in -HIm. Read the bible and non-christian historical resources related to that time. On a side note, also remeber that war is sometimes necessary to preserve that which is good and remember that many have done wicked things in the name of religion or Christianity, but that does'nt mean that Christ would endorse the deeds. As a civil war historian, I will comment on the above posts about religion. It was "religion" that was responsible for slavery in many parts, but true Christians in the south were against it and put their lives at risk to free them and abolish slavery. You sometimes have to ignore the history books and look at the letters and articles written during that time to get the true story. Many Christians were buying slaves, teaching them to read and write then settign them free but was very dangerous still – too many non-believers who didn't care.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:45 am |
  9. Patrick

    By all means let's add religion classes to the schools. American students can hardly add two numbers or write a complete paragraph so let's spend time and resources to teach them about Bronze Age myths.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:36 am |
  10. Byrd

    If preachers, priests and rabbis would spend less time spouting politics and more time actually discussing religion then perhaps the scores would have been a little better, but as nine out of ten Tea Partiers demonstrate, education is not terribly high on their priority list. But many, particularly fundamentalists, are self-ordained and never actually studied to learn either the fundamentals or the inconsistencies and falsehoods found in the Bible. Faith, compounded with ignorance, can be a slippery slope indeed.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:33 am |
  11. BTown

    I discovered my morality in church. I learned that my morals were NOT the same as what was being preached. It made me so mad to listen to that hypocritical priest. The more I learned about religion the more I trusted my own sense of morality.

    The "moral majority" makes me laugh. They wouldn't know morality if it hit them in the head. Only warped people need to memorize doctrine to feel moral. Look inside yourself and you will find the golden rule and god did not put it there.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:33 am |
    • Val

      No pun intended, but "amen"

      September 28, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  12. jj

    by all the posted comments it is no wonder God is waiting for people to believe in him what a sad world when Jesus does return

    September 28, 2010 at 7:29 am |
    • Petel2

      jesus didn't exist. The RCC made him up. In fact all writings about jc were after the fact.
      The Dead Sea scrolls were written before, during and after jc, all in the same region – yet they had zero mention of him.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:46 am |
    • Chaz

      Whatever gets you through the nigth

      September 28, 2010 at 7:52 am |
    • Tina

      Wow.... just..... wow. I see the brainwashing just leaching out of you.... I'm sooooo sorry! lol

      September 28, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  13. Aloisae

    The biggest problem with teaching comparative religion courses in public schools is not the objections parents would have about their children being taught about other faiths than their own but the objections to their children being taught about their own faith by an unbeliever.

    By the way, Mr. Pothero, your criticism of Catholic education while it may be true is not supported by the data. Most Catholics are NOT a product of the Catholic education system.. their parents take advantage of the tax payer supported public education system. I couldn't find anywhere in the study report where it indicated they attempted to tease out those who attended religious affiliated schools (of any faith) and those who attended public schools. For what it is worth, I'm agnostic but the product of of close to 20 years of Catholic education.... and I scored 100% on the test largely because of that Catholic education, including the comparative and world religion classes.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:27 am |
  14. Nate

    Just another piece of data in the long line of evidence that religion is made-up fantasy, and that the correlation between people who are more ignorant, and people who are more religious, is incredibly strong.

    Oh, wait, 'correlation' is a mathematical concept. Expecting religious folk to understand it, when they can't even see that they've centered their world view around a fictional character, is pretty unrealistic of me.

    My bad.

    September 28, 2010 at 7:17 am |
    • BTown


      September 28, 2010 at 7:37 am |
  15. Petel2

    I believe that religion should be taught as voodoo beliefs, as it really is. This way the kids won't be brainwashed so easily by their parents who were brainwashed at their age.
    Kids should be taught social skills and understanding humanity in schools rather than religion. We should teach them how a warped society damages children. How child trauma effects the later adult causing most chaos in society – murders, drug addiction, .. Only then can we start building a caring and peaceful society – religion has no concept of humanity..

    September 28, 2010 at 7:14 am |
  16. Kamikaze

    So he only wants the Christian faith to be taught in school? What about all the other diverse religious people in this country? Are we to force one specific religion down their throats. Stephen Prothero may know something about the Christian faith but he sure doesn't know much about US politics. The US has no declared religion or language. It's set up that way for a reason.

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

      @Kamikaze: I think you are mistaken about the point of this article. The author specifically states that he does not want only the Christian faith taught in schools. He is advocating for education ranging as many world religions as possible.
      "I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world's religions to remedy this problem."

      September 28, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  17. Mark


    I am an Atheist and I would tend to disagree. You can say that about many deeply held philosophical views of world. I have met plenty of Christians, Jews and Muslims that do not use their faith in the service of their egos. They are good people that I would give my life for. Their are also many people of faith in this country that are no different than the people we fight, radical Islam.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:57 am |
    • Tina

      Yes! Exactly!

      September 28, 2010 at 7:08 am |
  18. Tina

    Separation of Church and State!!!!! If schools start teaching religion my kid is being home schooled. That's BULL SH!T!!!!

    September 28, 2010 at 6:55 am |
    • Frogist

      @Tina: I think you might have gotten the wrong end of the stick. A comparative religion course that explains the background and philosophy of different world religions is not a violation of church and state. And it can be very influential in giving people a solid understanding of where their particular faith falls in with other faiths they may not be as familiar with. Also you might just find that whichever school your kid goes to they might already have a religion class much like the one I described.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  19. Bobby

    Comparitive religion courses such as" Religions in America" taught in a non-biased manner would go far to educating children and help them understand others belief.. Taught right it could increase tolerence and reduce hate-crimes

    September 28, 2010 at 6:55 am |
    • Val

      I think that there are far more important things that should be taught to students about living life on their own such as having a budget and balancing a check book, the proper way to discipline children and other life skills that parents and schools ignore. Studies of religion should be left to the colleges and should not be mandatory. It is hard for me to believe that a person can be an adult without ever having done any reading ON THEIR OWN about religion and WHY they believe or choose not to.

      September 28, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  20. Ozzi

    I agree. Christians are the nastiest, meanest people on the planet. And their religion is at fault.

    If you really read the Bible, the Bible has all kinds of techniques and advice for murdering and abusing people. Very hate-filled book and it needs to be abandoned like Mein Kampf.

    September 28, 2010 at 6:50 am |
    • Frogist

      @Ozzi: I think we do a disservice to humankind when we categorise all Christians as nasty and mean. I've run into some nasties myself, but I've also met some very kind people who if pressed would name themselves as Christian. I also dispute that religion is the defining factor. I think there are certain personality traits that will espouse anger and hatred. No matter what their philosophy they will latch onto the worst parts of it.

      September 28, 2010 at 12:14 pm |
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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.