Paying the price for religious illiteracy

In Judge Joseph Sheeran’s courtroom, religious literacy is seen as an antidote to intolerance and hate. Last week, the Michigan … Continued

In Judge Joseph Sheeran’s courtroom, religious literacy is seen as an antidote to intolerance and hate.

Last week, the Michigan judge gave Delane Bell two years of probation for attacking two men Bell thought were Muslims. But the judge conditioned the sentence on Bell’s completing a ten-page paper on Hinduism, the actual faith of the assault victims.

This was Sheeran’s second attempt to educate Bell about religions. At his plea hearing, Bell was ordered to write a paper on the cultural contributions of Islam, presumably to help him stop viewing all Muslims as terrorists.

As much as I admire the judge’s optimism about the power of learning, it’s probably naïve to hope that writing a paper will inspire remorse in people who beat up Muslims, spray paint synagogues with swastikas, burn down black churches or – as we saw this past summer – gun down Sikhs.

But on the larger question of what Americans need to know in order to be good citizens, Sheeran may be on to something.

Study about religions in school, it turns out, can indeed increase tolerance and understanding among people of different faiths and beliefs.

After taking a course in world religions, high school students increase their support for the rights of others, according to a study by Emile Lester and Patrick Roberts published by the First Amendment Center in 2006. The study also found that students leave the course with a greater understanding of the major world religions and a fuller appreciation of the moral values shared across differences.

Unfortunately, however, few American students are exposed to substantive teaching about religions. Only one public school district (Modesto, Calif.) has a required world religions course. And only a small number of districts offer world religions as an elective.

It’s true that, unlike 20 years ago when the public school curriculum was largely silent about religion, social studies textbooks and standards now include some study of religions. But in many history classrooms the treatment of religion remains mostly superficial and incomplete.

Thanks to the religion gap in public education, most Americans are illiterate about religious traditions (including their own), a conclusion supported by a 2010 religious knowledge survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

How much America’s religious illiteracy contributes to religious intolerance and hate is, of course, difficult to measure. But in an age when religion plays a key role in shaping events at home and abroad, ignorance about religion can only deepen tensions among people of different faiths and beliefs – and lead to poor public policy.

Consider, for example, recent and current proposals in many state legislatures to bar courts from considering sharia and other religious laws. Much of this debate has been shaped by false propaganda about how sharia (Islamic law) is somehow creeping into the American court system.

In reality, there is no evidence that sharia (or other religious law) is being substituted for U.S. law in American courts. The First Amendment clearly prohibits government imposition of any religious law.

Educating the public, starting with state lawmakers, about the actual meaning of sharia – and how American Muslims understand the role of sharia in their lives – could go a long way toward preventing passage of unnecessary and discriminatory legislation.

And educating the public, starting with public school students, about world religions could help turn down some of the heat in our ugly culture war fights over religion.

Who knows? A religiously literate population might also lead to fewer rage-filled hate crimes targeting people because of their religion.

Maybe then Judge Sheeran wouldn’t need to assign so many papers that should have been assigned in high school.

Charles C. Haynes 

is senior scholar at the 

Freedom Forum First Amendment Center 

and director of the 
Religious Freedom Education Project 

at the 


in Washington.

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  • joecalbear

    Even better, educate the masses regarding the science of cosmology and the science of genetics, so that they can see that their is no need for the various Gods of mythology.

  • ceodata

    If you knew more about religion, you would know that, for most religious people, belief in God is a lot more than belief in a “God of the gaps”. As for your belief that education in cosmology or genetics would destroy religion: There are many people who accept evolution and an old universe who still believe in God. The Catholic Church, for example, has issued statements in support of acceptance of evolution. And don’t forget it was a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who contributed so much to the science of genetics. He did his experiments with the full support of his religious superiors.

  • aby

    The more I learn about Islam the more I am convinced of its incompatability with the civilized values of freedom,justice, tolerance and equality.

  • 4blazek

    A history lesson…Throughout history our species has worshiped everything from cows to the sun depending on which element of nature they were confused by at the time. In the 5th century Constantine assembles the Council of Nicaea and codifies the writings of early cave dwellers under a single title. We know that title as the Bible.

  • DJWinMassachusetts

    It’s unlikely that any public school district would want to touch this. Why? How do you create an “objective” curriculum on religion that won’t bring a mob of angry protesters to your door? Who needs that problem?

  • PhillyJimi1

    As an evil atheist I would actually pretend pray to everyone imaginary buddy in the sky to have this become US Law. How this would solve so many problems! Teaching comparative religions including the old dead religions and dead gods. .

    But this is only a dream! Of course it sounds good but we all know this is the very worst thing for a religion that could ever be taught in schools. It only creates those pesky questions in the minds of young people. The worst thing for a religion there is. Religions do very well when no one ever asks any pesky questions. They take everything on FAITH are generous with their money and are happy knowing they have beach front property waiting for them in heaven.

    Why poison the minds of children with doubt? Very quickly you realize that all the religions can’t be right about their god claims. If the Muslims are right then the Christians are in trouble when they die. But it is possible that all the theists can all be wrong.

    What would a world be like without suicide bombers? Without religiously inspired ethnic hatred and murder? Where homosexuals could just live in peace? Where you could express the normal healthy drive of your hormones without feeling guilt and shame. Or not worrying about being tortured forever for not following the insane rules of a bunch of superstitious sheep herders from 2000 years ago. What a horrible world that would be!

    And for any good a religion does doesn’t need god or the superstitions in order to do good. You can still feed the hungry and cure the sick without god or gods. The middle man isn’t required.

  • persiflage

    You’re right about that. Teaching comparative religion aka the academic study of religion in public schools was something of a movement back in the 1970s. Although presented as a completely voluntary elective, it never went anywhere mainly because of the problems that you noted regarding parental and student support – or a lack thereof. Even then it was a contentious topic.

    It seems you can teach minor children about virtually anything in public schools, with the solitary exception of religious studies that approach the universality of religion and religious mythology objectively.

  • persiflage

    ‘Who knows? A religiously literate population might also lead to fewer rage-filled hate crimes targeting people because of their religion.’

    Religious literacy is generally taken seriously only by people that aren’t under the sway of one religoius belief system or another to being with. It’s sometimes difficult for folks with academic expertise in comparative religions to remain subjectively tied to mythical belief systems and practices.

    Real knowledge about the origins and functions of religion is not without inherent risks for the true believer – it’s just never been a popular idea.

  • park6708

    How do you define good and evil? If you agree that there is such a thing as good, then do you also believe that there is such a thing as moral law?

    And if you think there is such a thing as moral law, then where does that come from? Is there a moral law giver?

    Or is everything subjective?

  • park6708

    How do you define good and evil? If you agree that there is such a thing as good, then do you also believe that there is such a thing as moral law?

    And if you think there is such a thing as moral law, then where does that come from? Is there a moral law giver?

    Or is everything subjective?

  • shanti2

    You could very well say the same about almost any other religion. It is no more true of Islam than it is of Christianity. I have lived and worked all over the world, with people from every religious background, and I can tell you with certainty that they all have negative and positive qualities in equal measure. That is to say, they are all part of the human family.
    If your information about other religions, including Islam comes from their enemies, then of course you will have a negative view of them. If you want to know about any religion, or any culture, for that matter, don’t get your information from people who despise them.

  • ThishowIseeit

    It all depends on the texts used to teach religion. First , there is no agreement on what is fact or fiction. Just because million people believe in something, readers should be warned that there no agreement on the historic truth of the story. Second , how many details to teach ? If not all the details of a religion, which ones to skip ?For example, the only way to teach about Islam, is to include the entire Quram, not just a few verses. There are also different versions of it. And which translation to use?

  • frostbite6

    The “true believers” will never agree to study other religions.

    Don’t bother to confuse them with different ideas.

    Rather like the viewers of Fox News!

  • Sandmann

    “They” should hire the P.R. group that crammed homosexuality down our throats (no pun intended) society would be forced to accept..

  • williambellah

    In my book it’s the love of money (the things money can buy) that’s the problem, not religous ignorance. People commit murder for a few dollars. Our so called leaders invade and occupy, kill, imprison, torture etc. for that black gold called oil. People sacrifice their own children when they send them off to these wars. People lie, cheat, steal, prostitute themselves etc, etc., all for the love of money. Our very system of Government is based on the love if money, capitalism.

  • southernbeale

    I’m sorry but it’s not just the public which suffers from religious illiteracy. Most of our religious leaders do as well. I’m shocked at the un-Biblical comments and actions coming from pastors and national religious leaders — people like Pat Robertson, Albert Mohler and the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue. Look no further than Andy Schlafly’s “Conservative Bible Project.” Time and again when religious people realize their politics is at odds with their religion they decide it’s the RELIGION which must be wrong. Religion is no longer the dominant force in our culture, and as a result it’s become like clay: twisted, molded and shaped into whatever belief one wants. Torture, war, greed, and excess are the face of modern religion in America, while religious leaders denigrate social justice and caring as “Marxist” and “socialist” and un-Christian. Astonishing.

  • delunser

    I think the main form of religious education needed in this country is that religious people should be educated that it is a bad idea (and unAmerican) to try and force your religious views on other people through the political process. If everyone minded their own business, there would be far fewer conflicts.

  • delunser

    It would appear that the main form of religious education necessary for the US is that people need to be educated not to try and force their religious beliefs on others through the political process, which is a profoundly unAmerican thing to do. Don’t like abortion, don’t have one; don’t like gay marriage, don’t marry one, it’s as simple as that. If people would mind their own business and not try to force their beliefs on others, there would be a lot less strife in today’s society.

  • OldUncleTom

    I suggest we start with a less controversial form on “literacy”.

    Let us begin by having uniform standards of science teaching, without the influence of politically motivated religious groups, and then work our way up to the academic study of religion.

    If we cannot teach Biology honestly and objectively, we surely cannot teach religion, for the same reasons.


    We’re teaching our kids the evolution faith movement every day in public schools-if this isn’t religious indoctrination, I don’t know what is! (based on missing links, speculative science, faith) They’re now starting to act like the animals we’ve taught them they think they are! I’m guessing this was the false state religion our founders warned against! Secularization of church and state has done us no favors-turn on the news!

  • aby

    The reason why more and more people in the West are detesting Islam is partly of what they see Muslims do in the name of their religion, but mostly because more and more are reading the Muslim “Holy Texts”.

  • persiflage

    ‘Or is everything subjective?’

    Yes, it is………at least as far as human understanding goes.