ATHEIST: Put Religion in Public Schools

The Pew Forum’s recent study detailing the abysmal religious literacy demonstrated by most Americans is disturbing, but not at all surprising. The smear campaign waged against Muslims over the past few months has been a painful reminder of how–especially in a country where gross ignorance of religion is the norm–opportunistic blowhards can easily manipulate matters of alleged supernatural significance. With vast majorities unable to correctly answer even the most basic questions about Islam, for example, is it any wonder that an innocuous Islamic center in Lower Manhattan could spur so much misinformation and hysteria?

The grating irony in these sorts of studies, of course, is that despite our illiteracy, America also happens to be the most pious of all major Western democracies. We are constantly hearing about the crucial electoral role of Evangelical Christians, the degree to which politicians are placating their fundamentalist base, and whether gay marriage really does spell the end of civilization. Yet when actually pressed about what they believe–even about their own religion’s central tenets–a great many Americans simply draw blank.

For one, according to Pew, Catholics do not generally understand that their church teaches that the communion wafers they consume on Sunday mornings literally transubstantiate into the flesh of Christ. Only 45 percent of all respondents–the vast majority of whom must have been Christians–can name the four Gospels, and just over half are aware of which religion reveres the Koran.

So what’s the proper recourse? Consider this: Pew asked whether public school teachers may legally read from the Bible “as an example of literature.” Most respondents answered incorrectly, presumably taking this to represent a violation of the separation of church and state. But, thankfully, that cherished Jeffersonian ideal mandates no such prohibition–it merely proscribes governmental sanction of any particular belief-set. Misconceptions like this one have created the impression that issues of religion are not to enter the public domain; that religion is instead to remain an intensely private matter, untouched by the cultural checks and balances applied to most every other area of human inquiry. Thus, because odious beliefs and distortions are so rarely subjected to meaningful scrutiny, they have been allowed to thrive–festering with a dangerous false sense of constitutionally afforded immunity.

What we need, then, is more religion in schools.

This remedy may seem counter-intuitive, as the removal of coerced prayer and other forms of religious endorsement from the public school system was, after all, one of the twentieth century’s hallmark progressive achievements. But in banishing the promotion of one theology over another, the Warren Court certainly did not in turn banish the whole of religion from the academic arena. Rather, when it issued a pair of rulings in 1962 and 1963 outlawing school prayer, the court merely codified the increasingly popular notion that space in the public sphere should be made for those who do not affirm the majority’s belief in Christian creeds. And because prayer itself bore such a heavily Protestant connotation, the court’s only feasible option was to insist that schools be strictly secular–a powerful blow to Christianity’s previously unshakable cultural hegemony.

The rulings thus represented an acknowledgement that in postwar America, believers in dissonant and often mutually irreconcilable religious principles were regularly interacting with one another; the newly available automobile allowed the faithful to finally exit their insular bubbles of religious conformity and experience, advancements in communications technology exposed people to doctrines that contradicted their own, new immigration patterns shook up the ecumenical status quo, and so forth. In short, the great engine of pluralism was gathering steam, and the Warren Court decisions reflected this new reality.

But as critical as those rulings were to our societal embrace of religious diversity, they also indirectly brought about a pernicious side effect. Religion was largely excised from public curricula out of concern for sensitivity or respect, and we see subsequent embarrassing ignorance manifested in the many insufferable (and preventable) controversies du jour.
My proposal: courses in world religions should be mandatory for all public school students, with a focus on Christianity as the most prevalent domestic faith. These courses would examine the philosophical and sociological features of religion, without teachers’ needing to fear that such lessons will be construed as an endorsement or denunciation of any particular doctrine. Within reason, their ability to teach freely and honestly must be unhindered.

It is patently unacceptable for so many to know so little about what has been by some accounts the prime mover of world history. The only solution is to shift our educational priorities. In learning more about religion, students will also hopefully recognize that the decision to assign oneself a religious faith is not to be taken lightly, as it bears profound metaphysical, social and even political implications. With any luck, they will also glean that the study of religion is incredibly interesting and fulfilling.

For those wary that an influx of such study will increase actual rates of dogmatic belief, consider one of Pew’s most critical findings: self-described atheists and agnostics are actually the most knowledgeable about religion, far outpacing Christians of all stripes. The more we learn about the actual doctrines, then, the less likely we are to adopt them as our own–and the less likely we are to unfairly demonize others. After all, if Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich learned about Islam from Al Ghazali instead of, we might’ve avoided a lot of recent nonsense.

This column was originally published online at and

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