We live in the land of biblical idiots

That’s the headline of an opinion piece in today’s Los Angeles Times by Stephen Prothero.

Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, is author of a new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. Part of his book is based on a “religious literacy quiz” he has given to his undergraduate students for the last two years, the results of which show that the majority consider themselves to be religious Christians, but are profoundly ignorant of Christianity and the Bible.

He argues that there should be mandatory Bible courses in public high schools, presumably based on the curriculum from the Bible Literacy Project (which he mentions in his opinion piece), rather than the abysmally bad, biased, and unconstitutional curriculum which is actually being widely taught in U.S. public schools, from the National Council on Bible Curriculum.

I agree with Prothero’s idea in principle (though I don’t think it should be mandatory, and I think a world religions course is a better idea), but I’m not sure how well it would work in practice. Even with the Bible Literacy Project’s book as the basis for the curriculum, I think there’d likely be many teachers turning it into one like the NCBC’s–like David Paszkiewicz at Kearny High School. P.Z. Myers suggests that this problem be resolved by having a world religions course taught where each religion is only be taught by someone who is not an adherent of that religion.

There’s also the problem that those teachers who did teach objectively could find themselves involved in lawsuits from parents who don’t think anyone should teach their children that there are other worldviews–though presumably once a precedent was set that problem might fade.

(Also see Wonkette’s “Jesus-Loving Americans Totally Ignorant of Jesus, Religion.”)

About Jim Lippard
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    Great post. I certainly agree that this level of ignorance in something that leads people to do such awful things is unforgivable. I also agree that courses solely on the Christian bible would be a bad idea and would prefer an elective comparative religion course. PZ is right that the only way this could really work would be to have the material taught by someone rational enough not to actually believe it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859046131830902921 Mark Plus

    I bet if you gave a random sampling of American children a “Harry Potter Literacy Test,” they would do surprisingly well. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, appears to have stumbled onto an alternative mythology that children want to learn much more readily than the older biblical one. In fact, Rowling’s work suggests a way to push older belief systems to the wayside in as little as one generation. Children have a finite amount of time and attention span, so the cognitive resources devoted to learning everything they can about Harry Potter has to come at the expense of learning about some ancient religious tradition.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05501109533475045969 Explicit Atheist

    Some states may forbid requesting information about state and local government employees religious beliefs by their government employer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13977394981287067289 Blake Stacey

    Having read Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians, I find myself rather unsurprised by these results. A while back, I quoted a lengthy chunk from chapter 4 over at Pharyngula.

    Since fundamentalists insist the Bible is the revealed word of God and without error, you would think they’d have read it. But you’d often be wrong. I gave a listing of the sixty-six books in the King James Bible to a large sample of parents and asked them, “How many of these have you read, from beginning to end? (Example, if you have read parts of the Book of Genesis, but not all of it, that does not count.)” Nineteen percent of the Christian High fundamentalists said they had never read any of the books from beginning to end, which was neatly counterbalanced by twenty percent (but only twenty percent) who said they had read all sixty-six. (I tip my hat to anyone who put her head down and plowed through the first nine chapters of Chronicles I. Look it up.)

    On the average, the high fundamentalists said they had read about twenty of the books in the Bible—about a third of what’s there. So they may insist that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches, but most of them have never read a lot of what they’re so sure of. They are likely, again, merely repeating something they were told while growing up, or accepted when they “got religion.” Most of them literally don’t know all that they’re talking about. (But they are Biblical scholars compared to others: Most of the non-fundamentalist parents had not read even one chapter.)

    Read the rest; it’s worthwhile.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Explicit Atheist: That would be a tough obstacle for P.Z.’s suggestion to overcome…

    Mark: So does this mean that Becky Fischer’s railing against Harry Potter (as shown in the film “Jesus Camp”) was actually rational?

    Blake: Thanks very much for the fascinating additional evidence!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03859046131830902921 Mark Plus

    So does this mean that Becky Fischer’s railing against Harry Potter (as shown in the film “Jesus Camp”) was actually rational?

    “Rational” in the sense that she and many other christians see the Potter myth as a surprisingly effective new “meme” competing with the gospel for their children’s developing minds? Well, yes. They don’t rail against portrayals of comic book superheroes, pirates or other fictional characters aimed at children, because these fantasies haven’t threatened to interfere with religious indoctrination. I realized a few years ago that the Potter phenomenon had turned into something really unusual when I started to see news stories about how children talked their parents into waiting in line at bookstores at midnight to buy the next phonebook-sized installment of the novels on its release date.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00487502995709519940 Antonio Manetti

    I’d be less suspicious of a course in the bible if it was truly an analyses of scripture as a manmade work of literature instead of a chance to conduct bible class at the taxpayers’ expense.

    Such a course ought to be based on the best contemporary biblical scholarship, including a detailed discussion of biblical provenance, putative authorship (especially the disputed authorship of some of the Pauline epistles), how the decision to include or exclude various elements of scripture was made and other extant scriptures, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12926686938547386110 Deacon

    Parents can be flat out dumb sometimes (sorry if I offended any parents in here). I completely agree that most “christians” are ignorant of even the most basic of tenants of the Christian faith. I fully agree that some form of religion should be taught in schools whether it’s Christianity or a World Religions class. I’m a Christian advocate and teacher and actually found the World Religions class I took in high school and college to be informative and inspirational to a certain degree. If Christianity claims to hold the truth, just as with other faiths, than it must stand up under scrutiny. I have read the Bible from front to back a couple times straight through while reading specific books numerous times. I understand I am one of the few but it is essential for people to know what they believe in. If Christianity is the dominant faith of America then it should be formally taught, objectively though I might add. I don’t agree with skewing facts of avoiding hard questions. I agree with Antonio to a certain extent. The class shouldn’t exclude the development of the canonized Bible and some of the questions around the Bible as well as providing insight into what some scholars are saying to those questions from multiple camps.

    Honestly I wish my biology classes were taught in the same light though. I bring up this question because it is a natural one. What about Creationism then? If you’re going to hit the Bible than it’s going to come up as a question. In almost every high school and college level class Evolution is presented as a conclusive answer without any flaws or questions looming. Even the opposing sides aren’t mentioned. No one ever taught me about a Cambrian explosion or the like or where evolution falls short. Like the infamous “what was there before the big bang?” questions that we theists like to ask lol. (once again not trying to debate evol vs. creat) I’m just asking that data be presented as anything else is. With pros and cons. Any theory i.e. evolution, creation, faith, belief, etc. that’s presented without showing it’s weaknesses or leaps of faith is doing an injustice to the students.

    Now I would be concerned though with people that teach those classes adding in their personal bias. My wife took a World Religions class in college and the teacher misrepresented a lot of the faiths. He misquoted scriptures and misinterpreted church doctrine specifically of the Christian faith.

    I actually don’t believe that a majority of people can teach without a bias, maybe even including myself, and therefore it would hurt the objectivity of the lesson. Thus, a class on religion would become more of an evangelistic class than one that gives knowledge. Someone either evangelizing their faith or evangelizing for no religious faith at all.

    Good article though. Hey you get a point from a Christian. You can’t get that everyday ;-) j/k