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. Dennis

    Public schools do have courses on religion. I had them, my children have had them.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:42 am |
  2. MikeinTN

    The problem with Religious illiteracy is the fault of the church itself. Their message is not resonating and people of all ages are not required to attend something that is not of significant interest to them. For the Religious fanatic this presents a problem. So what is their solution? Teach it in school where attendance is manditory and you have a captive audience. And whose religion would they teach? Christian of course, since no other exists to them. Does't surprise me that the fundamentalist South scored badly. Education is not on top of their to do list.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  3. capnmike

    Right. Schools need religion courses. What they REALLY need, what we ALL need, is a course that teaches the TRUTH, ...RELIGION IS A FAIRYTALE! That's the plain unvarnished reality, not the baloney of gods and devils and heavens and hells and all that supernatural claptrap that has kept humanity in an endless cycle of hatred, ignorance and fear for thousands of years.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  4. Paul Edwards

    Why is it "Islam-bashing" for Rev. Graham to point out that President Obama was raised in a Muslim home, educated in Muslim schools, and is now a Christian? You displayed your lack of objectivity from your very first sentence. Continuing to read only shows you skewed the research to support a conclusion you created which has no basis in the facts.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:33 am |
  5. j

    Religious classes in school? Hell, it looks like the churches need to actually teach their subjects something, the rest of us know more than they do.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  6. Andrew Riley

    Morality has a biological and neurological basis. A normal brain is wired to "mirror" the emotions of others. So we actually do "feel your pain". This is what motivates us to avoid harm to other living things. On a higher cerebral level it takes the form of empathy. Religion is just window dressing. We all (except for sociopaths) haver an inbuilt moral compass. We don't need religion. We do however need to codify our inner morality which is what the law is for.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:30 am |
    • Steve

      Laws that are primarily based on Christian principles – you just proved the point you were trying to disprove! Way to go!

      September 28, 2010 at 9:34 am |
    • peace2all


      Actually, these 'principles' that You and other Christians claim as the 'originators' and somehow hold the 'patent' on is truly and unequivocally false.

      These said 'principles' .... Pre-date..(Christianity) by thousands of years.

      Early human's began to realize that it is better to work together vs. just killing each other as one example.....

      But wait..... Some Christians are killing people now. Some Christians steal... etc...


      September 28, 2010 at 6:29 pm |
  7. Rick

    Sorry but I found this article to be pretty poor. First, I doubt this is the first major study of religious literacy among American adults and as indicated in the main CNN article, it is not comprehensive or scientific, probably from the small sample size.

    Second, I disagree that mandatory public school classes on the Bible and world religions is the answer. Assume that Christians go to a Christian service on Sunday more often than atheists. Presumably, Christians are getting an education about the Bible yet did poorer on this test than atheists who research/self-study. The reason being? Atheists are motivated to think and learn and ask questions. If our public schools taught thinkers, the religious literacy part would take care of itself.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:27 am |
  8. Sybaris

    Religion, any religion should be given an X rating to keep it out of the minds of children who are yet capable of critical and rational thinking.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:16 am |
    • David Johnson


      Yeah, like the good people of the bible-belt are capable of critical thinking.

      Bible-belt husband to Bible-belt wife: "Sis, what do you think about that evolution?"

      Bible-belt wife to Bible-belt husband: "Well, junior does have those webbed feet..."

      September 28, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  9. Methusla

    David Johnson

    Well, these blogs aren't nearly as fun if there are no fundies to get irate. Cheers guys!

    So, David heads for the door, to go to work. As he drives his chariot down the road:
    I chase your Jesus around the blog with my iron chariot! Run! Run! False Messiah!
    As David drives his chariot, he observes the road kill, and muses about the dust he created as he whizzes by.
    Someday, that'll be me, he thinks, as he hums Puff the Magic Dragon, and checks to make sure he didn't forget to bring his book of Blah.

    Soon David arrives at his destination, the Rock quarry. He ascends from his mighty chariot moblie. Being a lover of himself, he whips out his mirro, to observe what evolution has done for him.
    Upon his head, he wears his haunghty steel unicorn helmet. It has one defunct eyeball in the middle (which he blames the God he does not believe in for) it rolls around in its socket, as it is also a lazy eye. His face looks rather strange, hmm he thinks, could have been much better!
    He observes his bad design. > Humans and other animals have many more examples of sub-optimal or bad design
    He wonders at chimpy lookin mouth, but remembers, he has too many teeth for his mouth. Ohhhhh! His eyeb-a-l-ls are screwed up too. If only God could give him some birdeyes?Thats right, he don't exist. He attempts to sit down, but his protruding pelvis, makes it a hard feat. David is all out of shape. He consults his book of Blah, to see what could have possibly gone wrong!

    All of a sudden, he hears a sound, and turns to see his buddy Luke, another disgruntled specimen from the Big Bang explosion, approaching him.
    Hail David! It is I Luke!
    Luke is weird lookin too. He has lots of lines in his face, from being too close when the unknown factor caused the Big Bang! Luke has been shot out of the same explosion along with David. He has his helmet on too, but instead of an eyeball like Davids, his has a blow hole. When he eats. he can blow all the primorvieal soup out of the hole in his helmet, thus eliminating choking.
    He says to David:

    I'm tired of this nonsense. Evolution is not a theory that some scientists believe in. Evolution is a fact of science and the foundation of modern biology
    Just look at me, I am proof!
    David, thinking himself to be a great Science Scholar, tells Luke, Just look what the great explosion did for us, we should be not complaining! Who cares what the fundie Christians think!

    ScienceScholar – yeah, of course I understand that. But try explaining that to an idiot. See where our problem arises?

    Both of the primate looking misfits have a discussion, further complaining....If it turns out that there is a God, I don't think that he's evil. But the worst that you can say about him is that basically he's an underachiever.
    All of a sudden, a hughe lightening bolt strikes close to where Davy and Lukie are sitting.

    Praise be to the Evolutionary God, that thing could have hit us! Ok Back to the conversation...
    David Johnson

    God IS an underacheiver. Look at these bad designs.

    When we study the retina at the back of the eye, we can see that the cell layers are backwards. Light has to travel thru seven layers of cells before reaching the light sensing cells. Then the signals go back thru these layers to the nerves on the inside surface. In addition, the blood vessels are on the inside surface and further block the light. A truly intelligent designer could have done better than the human eye. Actually, evolution did a better job with the eyes of birds (which have no blood vessels in the retina) and the octopus and squid (which have the light sensing cells on the surface).


    And as a back pain sufferer, thanks David. There are more too:

    Our teeth don't fit in our jaws. Most of us need surgery to remove extra teeth at roughly age 20. We eat and drink through the same hole in our face that we breath. If only we had an extra blow hole? Think how many humans would not die of choking to death. And I'm not asking for too much here: mammals such as whales and dolphins have an extra hole and therefor, cannot choke., our eyes suck. Our eyes really suck, to be honest. Our hearing is not all that great too. What made us so extraordinary is our brains. We are problem solvers, like the rest of the primates

    As David and Luke sit consulting thier Book of Blah, searching for answers, Luke has a sudden, unexpected erruption of the blowhole!
    David is covered in splatterings , but is too occupied in his all time question:
    Why do men have n-ip-ples??

    Who cares? When you die they will be roadkill, blowin in the wind....!

    The two evolution pioneers pack up thier sad selves and hit the road, after failing to do an honest days work.
    For who knows what lays between the rockpiles...a fossil ? A pre Big Bang Match?
    Inquiring minds want to know!


    September 28, 2010 at 9:14 am |
    • David Johnson

      You really are terrible!

      September 28, 2010 at 9:47 am |
    • peace2all

      @David Johnson

      I see you have made a new friend.. 🙂


      September 28, 2010 at 8:20 pm |
  10. Colin in Florida

    It does not surprise me that Catholics knew the least about religion. Their religion 'works' on the principle of 'don't think or question-just believe what we tell you'. I know this, because I, an atheist, am married to a practicing Catholic. More than most Christian religions (my mom was baptist), Catholicism treats it's followers like mushrooms-keep them in the dark and feed them a bunch of manure. You want evidence that I am right? Ask your self this: Why do most Catholics still donate money to a system that has all-but encouraged child abuse for centuries, a system that has paid out over a billion dollars to victims of crime, a system that protects criminals (bishops and higher) who moved pedophile priests around rather than turn them in, and a system that has physically and mentally abused orphans in Ireland with slave-labor like conditions for centuries (making rosaries, and the like), and was only eliminated in this century. Why do they continue-they are conditioned to do so.

    As to religion in the classroom, religions have all day Sunday (or whatever day of the week they choose) to preach (read brainwash) their belief in imaginary friends to their flocks (see how religious leaders refer to their followers as a bunch of dumb grazing animals) -keep this 'belief' dung out of the classroom-teachers have enough to worry about today.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:11 am |
    • Steve

      And am sure your child will grow up well adjusted knowing you think your wife's is full of manure.
      People donate money to their church because, despite your rant, churches do perform acts and services in a community. Perhaps you think the government does all that with those tax dollars you give them....I know there are no examples of criminal activity or fraud waste and abuse in how the government runs programs.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:17 am |
    • LiberateUs

      Glad I'm Catholic instead of a self-righteous atheist. NOTHING you just said made any sense. Frankly, Its a mystery to me on how your wife tolerates your hatred of the Faithful.

      October 15, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  11. Trussell

    Classes on religion (the differnent religions and each belief) would be fine as long as creation is in included. Science says energy never dies only tranforms. Sound familiar. However, seperation of church and state (including schools) must be maintained. I do not want any religion forced on me nor on any child anywhere. I am not sure there is a teacher anywhere out there that can keep their personal opinion out of a religious class, even if in the smallest degree...influencing the child. Only parents and the child should choose their relious beliefs. WELCOME TO AMERICA LAND OF THE FREE.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:07 am |
  12. Shawn

    The world will be a better place once all of mankind finds atheism. Think of all the brainpower and money that has been wasted on this planet studying and worshiping ancient literature. If all these resources were put into solving problems such as alternative energy….

    September 28, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  13. IceT

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing ... this study just sets that fact to music.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  14. Sybaris

    Once again proving that Atheists know more about why they don't believe than the sheeple know why they do.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  15. Gregory

    Christianity has had thousands or years to try and convert the human population. During that time many people have died from the conflicts created by Christians. I don't think that is what God had in mind when he said to spread the word. Didn't Jesus say something like if the people don't want to listen to the word of God then kick the dust off your sandals and head down the road. Christians are constantly pushing their way, that is why you can't buy beer in some states on Sunday and other laws based on Christian thinking. They look to divide people not heal differences. In my opinion Christianity is much more a threat to America's security than the Muslims are. So should religion be taught in school I say no. Let each individual religion teach their own children, or there are religious schools if you feel that strongly about your childs religious upbringing. Otherwise why waste valuable class room time when the kid is getting it pounded into him at home and on Sunday.

    September 28, 2010 at 9:01 am |
    • Steve

      I totally agree. In fact, I dont think foreign languages should be taught or required in school either. I don't speak Spanish and I don't plan on moving my family to a Spanish speaking country so this is unnecessary as well. Forget world geography too! I think they should only teach the geography of a particular area the school is located. Why should my child need to know where the Amazon is or what tribes are there when it is much more important for him to learn how to get to DC when the 14th street bridge is closed. And that Shakespeare fellow, I mean, he doesn't even write in proper English I don't want my child getting confused by old sentence structure. This should be left for in the home as it has no bearing on day to day life.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:08 am |
  16. Liz

    "And how to make sense of religious conflict in the Middle East without knowing something about Judaism, Christianity and Islam?"

    Perhaps we should start even simpler than that and have them learn the basic geography of the Middle East. I think before we require something as specific asreligion and Bible classes, we should start with requiring world geography and history. I graduated from high school without taking either. For my required geography class, I took a course on Michigan and the Great Lakes (JUST Michigan) and for history, I took a course on the Vietnam War. Needless to say, I did not graduate high school with a very wide comprehension of either geography or history from global point of view. How can you have any understanding of the world's conflicts when you can't even find them on a map or know anything about how that conflict developed over time?

    September 28, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  17. Alex

    Religion is a big poisonous meme.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:59 am |
  18. Chuck Anaheim, Ca

    Religion has NO place in schools, end of story. What religion are you going to talk about in a very diverse society like the USA? Because there is or never will be a state religion in this country your opinion is just that, a very bad opinion.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:57 am |
  19. Janet

    While it is true that knowledge is power, it is equally true that knowledge abates fear. If everyone had at least a basic understanding of the religious beliefs of "them" a great deal of fear and hatred would be eliminated. (There will always be those who have the common sense of a sweet potato, but at least they'd be in the microscopic minority, instead of forming tea parties and holding up inflammatory but misspelled signs.) I would love to see Stephen's idea become a reality but only if ALL contemporary religious beliefs are covered: Christianity, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, Wicca, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. As a species, we are generally pretty slow and stupid - if we don't understand it, our basic reaction seems to be to immediately react with fear, then try to eliminate or kill it.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:55 am |
    • MuDdLe

      I think this is likely what he has in mind.

      And it really is an eye-opener for students to learn, for instance, that the Golden Rule is common to a number of major world religions. It makes it much more difficult to demonize the beliefs of others–in the way that adolescent atheists on here demonize all religious belief–once they are understood more fully.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:15 am |
  20. Janette

    Perhaps if we educated Americans in school about all religions they would stop thinking every Muslim was a terrorist! Ignorance is breeding a hell of a lot of contempt right now.

    September 28, 2010 at 8:53 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.