Religious Literacy: An Argument for Religion in Public Schools Even Liberals Can Love?
DonByrd printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Thu Mar 08, 2007 at 04:26:52 PM EST
What is the one belief about religion held by both cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett and christian conservative Charles Colson? That it should be taught in public schools. Boston University religion department chair Stephen Prothero makes the case in his new book Religious Literacy, arguing that Americans remain "the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world." His solution? Require high school courses in the Bible and world religion, educating Americans on a topic that will allow "more understanding" and more knowledgable "democratic engagement."

That's the kind of argument liberals can love, right? Knowledge designed to empower young people to make their own decisions and to foster communication across cultural divides. Prothero sure makes it sound simple. But is it?

To be clear, courses in religious literacy, or comparative world religions (or the Bible as literature) are legal. The Supreme Court has stated clearly that public school teaching about religion is allowed, so long as it isn't done from a religious perspective or for religious purpose; so long is it doesn't promote religion over non-religion, or promote one religion over others. In short, you can't teach religion. But you can teach about religion.

And in fact, though this topic is getting air this week (it's currently being debated at the Washington Post's On Faith panel discussion), these courses are already being taught. The argument for religious literacy in the last 2 years has become the central mechanism for returning religion-based courses to the public school curriculum.  To understand the culture and history of the world, you have to understand the religious texts at the center of everything from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr.

For those interested, there are 2 primary curricula vying for use in public schools.

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools  (caution: for aesthetic reasons unknown to me, annoying triumphant music heralds the loading of their homepage) is pushing a popular approach that would use the Bible itself as the textbook.

Any Bible curriculum that does not allow students to read it for themselves and draw their own conclusions insults the intelligence of the students and short changes them from getting a well-rounded education. In the final analysis, refusal to allow students to use their own Bibles in a Bible class is the ultimate in arrogance and arbitrary censorship. Let the students read and study the Bible itself, not what some expert says about it; it is the right thing to do.

The Bible Literacy Project issues a text entitled The Bible and its Influence that counts some church-state separationists like Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center and Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress among its supporters. It traces the narrative of the Bible and highlights its various allusions through cultural artifacts and historical developments.

I'm not here to say the value of religious literacy is a bad argument. But I would say this: it's not so simple. It's one thing to teach that Genesis is the first book of the Bible and contains the story of the snake and the forbidden tree. It's quite another to find a non-controversial way to answer virtually any serious question a student may have about that story. Multiply that concern by every story and character in the Bible.

Still, to read Prothero's comments you would think there's never been a simpler, less complicated exercise. In fact these are delicate issues and fine lines fraught with the danger of religious controversy and turmoil for a community.

Avoiding that brand of conflict might leave religious literacy  education necessarily superficial, and that may not be such a bad thing from a church-state perspective. Worth asking though: from a religious perspective, is it a good idea? Just because we can teach about religion legally, does that mean we should? We can learn to reference biblical allusions in great literature and speeches, but do we want to introduce our most sacred, personal, traditional beliefs in a way most suitable for a round of Trivial Pursuit?  These are honest questions.

One thing is for certain: the teaching of religious beliefs and values is best done in homes and churches, synagogues and mosques. Whether the all-important constitutional distinction between teaching about religion on the one hand and teaching religion on the other is a simple one to execute in a real-life classroom is another thing altogether.

Display: fact it sounds great. Would love for kids of all faiths to have more working knowledge of what's actually in the Bible, and about other faiths. But it's worth remembering that these classes don't get to be taught in theory. Real teachers have to use a real curriculum, deal with real questions from students and real concerns from their parents.

How many questions involving religion have definitions and explanations that are non-controversial?

By the way, Prothero proposes giving up a year of math to accomplish this requirement.

by DonByrd on Thu Mar 08, 2007 at 03:29:44 PM EST

I used to be married to a  World History teacher who incorporated a section on comparative religions in her course - basically by incorporating it into the relevant history of the period being covered.  

For each major religion there is a non-controversial "factual" history incorporating the broad outlines of it's theology and development.  It is not terribly difficult to say, 'this is what Buddhism generally holds' or this is what "Christianity generally holds".  

We already do this for all of our histories - which are in reality, historiographies - where a particular school of thought enjoys hegemony.  One can institute, at the state or local level, whichever is appropriate, a curriculum committee to develop this material.  It's really as simple as balancing various factions off against one another to very clearly illustrate that no one group speaks for all of "christianity" or "islam".  Moreover, there's a distinction between being taught the theology behind the "Our Father" and being forced to profess it as a pledge.  

The power of such approaches in undercutting fundamentalism, an approach which relies on ignorance to permit the authority of Dogma and Doctrine, is unparalleled.  Why do all Fundamentalists attack knowlege above all else?  Because critical thinking isn't possible when you have no information to play with.

by montpellier on Fri Mar 09, 2007 at 09:34:23 AM EST

A lot of grief could be saved by making it an elective, and by providing the course materials and curriculum ahead of time for parents' inspection, so there would be little room for complaint about soiling the little seniors' minds with heresy.

England can do this curriculum with relative ease, since self-centeredness is not quite as rampant there.

by NancyP on Thu Mar 08, 2007 at 05:43:10 PM EST

It's already an elective by going to the church or denomination of your choice.

Does your church offer classes in religious tolerance? If not why not? Maybe they are overly self-centered.

Schools are having a hard enough time with science and math. What would give any one any hope that they will get religion right especially the none Christian faiths.

Religion as courses for stucy belong in private schools, universities, your church and those of your friends.

by Turfsuper on Thu Mar 08, 2007 at 10:42:17 PM EST

I feel that a comprehensive course on the role of religion on society and its development would be a good thing. You don't have to go into detail...treat all religious texts as the mythology of that particular religion (which is basically what they are, if you want to be technical). Take the various creation stories from different religions and compare them with one another...what are the differences and similarities? Rather than have a course about a particular religion, make it a comprehensive comparison of world religions.

by LynneK on Tue Mar 13, 2007 at 02:19:02 AM EST

The NCBCPS corriculum is proselytizing and is illegal to teach in public schools.

The Texas Freedom Network has done a complete and thorough debunking of this course.

Then NCBCPS revised their curriculum, and TFN debunked it again.

Their curriculum proselytizes to a narrow right-wing sect of Christianity and it also has historical and factual errors.

Then, a Federal judge in Florida threw out half their curriculum, saying it proselytizes and violates the Establishment Clause.

If you're a public school educator, stay the hell away from NCBCPS.

by Tom3 on Mon Mar 19, 2007 at 11:42:11 AM EST

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