Educating Against Religious Illiteracy

by Betsy Keating

In September 2010 the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life released its results of a survey of Americans’ knowledge about different religions. (1) The survey questioned 3,412 Americans aged 18 and older last spring. On average, respondents answered only half of the thirty-two questions correctly. (2) These low scores stem largely from an ignorance of other faiths. However, the Pew Survey also found that many people could not correctly answer questions about their own religion’s doctrines. For example, about 45% of Catholics surveyed could not identify that their own church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion physically become the body and blood of Christ, not symbols. Around 53% of Protestants surveyed did not know that Martin Luther’s writings and actions began the Protestant Reformation. On the whole, while Americans identified themselves as very religious, they lacked fundamental knowledge of the basics of all faiths, even their own.

Constitutionality of Teaching About Religion

The Pew Center cites educational attainment as a strong indicator of one’s test score: those with more than a college degree answered eight more questions correctly than those with just a high school diploma. Taking a religious studies course also led to higher survey scores—which has significant implications for public education. Indeed, these survey results have led some education leaders to clamor for a more rigorous, analytic treatment of religions in public schools. While teaching about religion in public schools is perfectly legal, the Pew Survey also revealed that the majority of Americans do not actually understand the Supreme Court’s rulings about how religion can and should be addressed in public schools. While 89% of respondents recognized that the Supreme Court has determined that a teacher cannot lead a classroom in prayer, only 23% knew that the Supreme Court has ruled that teachers can read the Bible in classrooms as an example of literature.

In 1948, the Supreme Court decided in McCollum v. Board of Education that teaching Sunday school style lessons during the actual school day was unconstitutional and ordered that schools “stop making religious instruction available to its pupils in the school building and on school time.” (3) The Supreme Court, in the 1963 case Abington School District v. Schempp decided that reading from the Bible each morning in the public school classroom was unconstitutional. However, Justice Tom C. Clark cautioned against completely excising religion from education. In the Court’s majority opinion, he wrote that “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.” (4) Despite barring the use of the Bible in this particular case, the Court did not suggest religion has absolutely no place in public schools. While promoting or imposing any religious doctrine is clearly unconstitutional, religion itself need not be a taboo subject.

Current Treatment of Religion in the History Classroom

Many advocates of teaching about religion echo Justice Clark. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, argues that “the religious ignorance of Americans is a civic problem of the first order.” (5) Prothero claims that in order to understand history and current geopolitical events, people must understand the tenets of world religions and the belief systems of followers. However, many schools have minimized the discussion of religions in history, literature, and other curricula. Specific data about how religion is discussed in public schools is murky, but Andrew Rotherham, an education policy expert, asserts most classrooms address world religions “superficially,” utilizing “just a few textbook pages that have been heavily sanitized to avoid even the hint of controversy.” (6) Often the threat of complaints from students or parents leads teachers to gloss over, or even totally avoid, the issue of religion.

The incorporation of religion into the curriculum has ignited political tensions in Texas. The Texas Board of Education recently examined claims that its history texts are “pro-Islam” and “anti-Christian.” (7) In his formal resolution submitted to the Board, Randy Rives meticulously counted the exact length allotted to Christianity and Islam in the state’s history books, finding in his analysis a bias against Christianity. He writes that one textbook “devot[es] 120 student text lines to Christian beliefs, practices, and holy writings but 248 (more than twice as many) to those of Islam; and dwelling for 27 student text lines on Crusaders’ massacre of Muslims at Jerusalem in 1099 yet censoring Muslims’ massacres of Christians there in 1244 and at Antioch in 1268.” (8) Based on this evidence, he asserted that the textbook “impl[ies] Christian brutality and Muslim loss of life are significant but Islamic cruelty and Christian deaths are not.” (9) While it is perfectly possible that such biases could exist in any history textbook, members of Houston Federation of Teachers believe the books portray both religions fairly. (10) Ultimately, the Texas Board of Education did issue a resolution echoing Rives’ complaints, warning publishers to eliminate any “anti-Christian” sentiment from future textbooks. Texas, as one of the largest markets for textbooks, holds tremendous power over the content of textbooks nationally.

In some regards, history curricula are subjective: what to focus on and how to present information are value judgments. This subjectivity often leaves history curricula at the will of prevailing political values. In the Texas case, the educational value of the information presented was completely ignored, in favor of creating a rigid dichotomy between Christianity and Islam. Instead of seeing the references to religion as a way to understand the context of historical events, Rives and the Texas Board of Education want history classes to bolster only their current world view; any piece of information that does not neatly conform should be eliminated. History becomes about reinforcing ideology rather than presenting facts. This reality makes implementing any real analysis of religion in history classes a major challenge. As a hugely personal issue, discussions of religion, no matter how they are presented, will have loud detractors.

Studying the Bible as an Elective Course

In addition to including a discussion of religions in history classrooms, a few schools offer a more focused elective course on world religions, and a growing number of schools now have courses studying the Bible as a literary and historical work. A course on the Bible can serve an important role in increasing religious literacy as well as fostering an understanding of how the Christian Bible has influenced the history and culture of the United States and other countries. Biblical references are everywhere–from art to literature to political speeches and historic documents. A course can encourage a better understanding about the actual sources of these allusions. However, a course focusing on the Bible spurs understandable concerns about religious freedom and potential violations of the First Amendment. While a critical assessment of the Bible ideally would occur in such a class, many fear that religious indoctrination will inevitably follow. As many districts offering such classes tend to be more conservative and evangelical, some critics fear that teachers willing and able to utilize a secular, objective lens may not be available to head these elective courses. (11) Yet, such concerns have not stopped states moving forward with optional courses on the Bible. In 2006, Georgia’s legislature created two courses, History and Literature of the Old Testament Era and the History and Literature of the New Testament Era, and set the Bible as the courses’ primary text, becoming the first state to require the Bible as the focal point of such elective courses. (12) This decision follows the increasing strength of two major organizations promoting Bible studies curriculum: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) and the Bible Literacy Project.

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which created a Bible-centric curriculum that could be taught constitutionally at public schools, started in 1993 and has grown steadily. (13) Its curriculum, named “The Bible in History and Literature” uses the Bible as its only textbook and has been adopted by 563 school districts in 38 states, reaching over 360,000 students within the past two decades. (14) The organization stresses that its use of the Bible as the primary text allows students to “draw their own conclusions,” but even this simple proposition has complications, as many religious groups utilize different versions of the Bible, which are not necessarily compatible with each other. (15) Mark Chancey, an associate professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, criticizes “The Bible in History and Literature” for promoting a “conservative Protestant” understanding of the Bible, which makes “factual errors, idiosyncratic claims, and explicitly sectarian statements.” (16) Further, Chancey notes that the organization did not work with professional religious or Biblical scholars from accredited institutions, relying instead on people involved with conservative Christian groups to create its curriculum.

As the main competitor to the NCBCPS curriculum, the Bible Literacy Project published its own text, “The Bible and Its Influence,” in 2005, and provides online teacher training for the curriculum. (17) Widely considered less conservative than the NCBCPS, the Bible Literacy Project offers an inclusive, positive portrait of Christianity and the Bible as an inspiration for the arts, literature, and historical events like the civil rights movement. Its tone riles some conservatives who prefer the more staunchly Protestant background of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and its use of the Bible as the only in-class text. (18) In turn, John Conn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State offers a more liberal critique of “The Bible and Its Influence”, condemning it for ignoring historical cases where people have utilized the Bible to justify slavery, discrimination of minorities and women, and events like the Spanish Inquisition. (19) Chancey argues that despite its flaws and the criticism from both sides, the authors of “The Bible and Its Influence” have enlisted “a good faith effort to be nonsectarian.” (20) These two curricula differ both in their methods and their ideology. Just as with the Texas textbook resolution, the debate over which curriculum to implement usually becomes deeply political, following party lines as Republicans support the NCBCPS and Democrats push “The Bible and Its Influence”. This is a complicated, controversial course to offer on its own, but the added political pressures may make it an unpalatable option for states and districts with diverse political and religious backgrounds.

Moving Forward

Despite the great challenges to teaching about religion in public schools today, the religious illiteracy of Americans demands change from our education system. In a highly globalized world, having an awareness of the political and historical ramifications of religious beliefs is a necessary commodity. Religious beliefs influence and often define public policy both in the U.S. and abroad. Without a robust knowledge of world religions and their histories, one cannot hope to understand the rhetoric and actions of world leaders. In addition, as Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project and a leader at the Bible Literacy Project, argues, “religious literacy also matters because religious freedom matters.” (21) The best weapon against ignorance, discrimination, and fear is education about and exposure to religions other than one’s own. Although controversy and political arguments may stall or even prevent the movement for more thorough treatment of religion in public schools, real change is needed, as the Pew Center’s study illuminates. Moving forward with any change will be a challenge, but the United States cannot reasonably continue to ignore religion in public classrooms when religious literacy is essential for understanding history, current politics, world events, and the American culture at large.

Works Cited

1. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life “U.S. Religion Knowledge Survey.” 28 September 2010. Web.

2. Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life “U.S. Religion Knowledge Survey.” 28 September 2010. Web.

3. “Religion: On School Time or Off?” Time. 22 March 1948. Web.,9171,804516,00.html

4. Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963). Find Law. Web. vol=374&invol=203

5. Prothero, Stephen. “It’s Time to Teach Religion in Schools.” USA Today. 3 October 2010. Web.

6. Rotherham, Andrew. “The Real War on Christmas: No Teaching of Religion.” Time. 23 December 2010. Web.,8599,2039458,00.html

7. McKinley Jr., James C. “A Claim of Pro-Islam Bias in Textbooks.” New York Times. 22 September 2010. Web.

8. Rives, Randy. “Proposed Texas State Board of Education Resolution on Democratic Values in Social Studies Textbooks.” Web.

9. Rives, Randy. “Proposed Texas State Board of Education Resolution on Democratic Values in Social Studies Textbooks.” Web.

10. “Texas Board of Ed: Textbooks are Anti-Christian.” CBS News. 23 September 2010. Web.

11. Van Biema, David. “The Case for Teaching the Bible.” Time. 22 March 2007. Web.,9171,1601845-4,00.html

12. Goodman, Brenda. “Teaching the Bible in Georgia’s Public Schools.” New York Times. 20 March 2006. Web.

13. Van Biema, David. “The Case for Teaching the Bible.” Time. 22 March 2007. Web.,9171,1601845-4,00.html

14. National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. “Where This Has Been Implemented.” January 2011. Web.

15. National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. “The Curriculum.” January 2011. Web.

16. Chancey, Mark. “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses.” Religion & Education 34 (2007): 28-47. Web.

17. Bible Literacy Project. “Bible Literacy Project: An Educated Person is Familiar with the Bible.” December 2010. Web.

18. “High Schools Try Out New Bible Course.” The First Amendment Center. 02 October 2006. Web.

19. Conn, Joseph. “Chuck Stetson’s Trojan Horse?” Americans United for Separation of Church and State. January 2006. Web.

20. Chancey, Mark. “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses.” Religion & Education. 34 (2007): 28-47. Web.

21. Haynes, Charles. “Why Religious Literacy Matters.” The First Amendment Center. 10 October 2010. Web.


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