Religion and Education: Towards Religious Literacy

Education is my thing. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field of education, and was a high school teacher back in London before I defected to the USA. I care deeply that young people receive an excellent education which prepares them to be master of their own minds and encourages them to have an open, inquiring attitude toward the world.

I also want them to learn about religion. Religion is one of the central forces which has shaped our history and our culture, and it plays an inextricable role in political and civic life today. You simply cannot understand human beings – their past, present, or future – without having at least some basic understanding of religion. And, of course, religious liberty means very little if children are not exposed to the major religious faiths and the arguments which they present in their favor: without knowledge of the alternatives, young people have no real choice when it comes to religious beliefs.

You cannot trust parents to teach their kids about religion in an even-handed way: they are likely going to be interested in raising their kids in the same belief system that they hold. Nor can you simply leave it to churches and other religious organizations: they too are partisan. Therefore, it seems to me, public schools (if we are to have them at all – that’s a debate for another time) are the best place to teach kids about religion. With appropriate oversight, public schools could, in principle, develop a religious studies curriculum which presents the major world religions to students in a historical and sociological way, explaining how they developed, what role they have played historically, and their position in the world today.

This position is essentially the one held by Harvard professor Diane L. Moore, whose paper “Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach” provides a great introduction to this perspective.  Moore argues the following:

First, there exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe; second, one of the most troubling and urgent consequences of this illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas; and third, it is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a nonsectarian perspective in primary and secondary schools.

I buy all her basic premises, particularly the argument that religious illiteracy can lead to prejudice and that sensitive teaching about religion from a “cultural studies” perspective might alleviate this problem.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, such an approach is not illegal in the USA. The landmark ruling Abington v. Schempp, which outlined the boundaries between church and state in public schools, included a section specificaly outlining what is permissable. Justice Thomas C. Clark wrote:

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. It certainly may  be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment. (American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public School in the United States, see p. 7)

One could say that the court affirmed the right to teach about religion, as long as such teaching about religion was meaningfully different to the teaching of religion.

This view – a view which I believe has solid educational and legal grounding – has interesting implications for many of the debates around the place of religion in public schools which often exercise the atheist blogosphere. For instance, while the Cranston Prayer Banner was clearly an endorsement by the school of a religious view, it might be possible to mount a defense of a public school trip to see “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on the grounds that it promotes religious literacy. Were, for instance, the performance offered as part of a broader curriculum of religious studies, and explicitly framed as an opportunity to investigate how religion affects popular culture, the trip might be acceptable (clearly all these caveats were not present in the recent case in Arkansas).

Clearly, the line between teaching about religion and the teaching of religion is not always clear. The difficulty of ensuring you don’t overstep this line was evident in a recent case in which middle school students from Wellesley MA were taken, as part of a social studies class, to view a prayer service at a local Mosque. Several sixth-graders decided to participate in the service, after apparently being invited to do so, and controversy erupted:

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It seems that observing the prayer service would be a legitimate secular educational activity, but participating in the service crosses the line. Murky waters. But what is not murky, to me, is that students at public schools should receive sensitive, secular education in world religions.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • John Figdor

    I’m generally in favor of having religious studies classes in schools; however, I’m concerned that we can’t even get people up to the appropriate reading level, and that is vastly more important than teaching them cosmic fairy tales. Teaching religious studies should be a much much lower priority than fixing science education and reading. As much as I agree with you lot, Dan Dennett, and Diane Moore, that we ought to teach religious studies in schools, it should be clear that this should be a LOW priority, given our other problems.

    • Baal

      Dan Dennett wants comparative religion classes for much the same reason that I’m ok with them. It speeds up the conversion from religious to secular in a hurry. That desire is somewhat outside of the primary education system’s usual role in teaching folks literacy, numeracy and about science.

  • Travis Humphrey

    What students in the US aren’t receiving secular education in world religions. I know 25 years ago when I went to a public middle school in Forida, we spent a good deal of time in our Social Studies class learning about the major world religions. The Wellesley middle school field trip from 2010 you mention above was part of that school’s Social Studies curiculum. In my high school there were plenty of choices of classes that discussed various religions. I think our public schools are already expending enough time, effort, and money on education about the various religions of the world. You seem to want something far more extensive than I think in necessary or appropiate for the public school system. Also if you think the issues arround what occured with the Wellesley middle school mosque field trip are “murky waters”, I would be concerned as to how you define “sensitive, secular education in world religions”.

    • James Croft

      I don’t recall saying such education is not provided, although I agree with the account from the American Academy of Religion which says that “There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the United States”: clearly more could be done. Further, it has been my experience that many teachers avoid talking about religion because they fear they may run into legal issues if they do so, which is obviously not ideal from an educational perspective if religion is actually relevant to the discussion.

      I also wanted to introduce, in this first post on the topic of religion and education, a framework for exploring issues down the road, so it’s more an introduction than anything else.

      I’m unclear as to the point you wish to make when you say ” if you think the issues arround what occured with the Wellesley middle school mosque field trip are “murky waters”, I would be concerned as to how you define “sensitive, secular education in world religions”. Do you disagree with my assessment there?

      • Travis Humphrey

        I think it is obvious that public school field trips to religious services are unacceptable, wether observing or participating. I agree with Diane Moore that public schools should avoid the type of field trip that the Wellesley middle school took in 2010. The Wellesley school realizes that attending prayer services even as just observers is inappropriate. They now visit a mosque that doesn’t have prayers during the day.

        Cleary more could always be done, but the question is how much more needs to be done. The American Academy of Religion is an organization whose membership is made up of religious teachers and scholars and whose mission is to promote religious education. What do education organizations without a vested interested say about the amount of religious education in US public schools.

        • James Croft

          Why do you think that? I think the opposite: I can’t see how responsible religious education can take without exposing them to the spaces in which religion “happens” and allowing them to see people practicing their faith. It seems to me a very valuable educational experience to, for instance, visit a Mosque and view a prayer service, then discuss it in class afterward. What’s your objection?

          • Brian Westley

            I don’t think it’s appropriate for a public school to have a field trip to a church/mosque/whatever, regardless of whether any religious services are going on, because some religions prohibit their members from entering such buildings that aren’t part of their religion. I also think it’s too easy to misuse.

            Students learn about China without going there, I don’t think religions need in-person visits, either.

          • James Croft

            “some religions prohibit their members from entering such buildings that aren’t part of their religion.”

            This is a good point – obviously any such trip would be challenging to manage were there students raised in religions which prohibit entering other religious spaces. That’s a tough question.

            “Students learn about China without going there, I don’t think religions need in-person visits, either.”

            I think this is a less good point: clearly it would be better if students were able to actually visit China – so much can be conveyed through actual experience of a place or social setting which simply doesn’t translate through a textbook. Just because it is possible to learn about X without immersing oneself in X, it is often preferable to consider immersion as an educational strategy. I’m sure I could learn a lot about the Vietnam Memorial without going to see it, but I’d still much rather see it.

          • NathanDST

            To add to James’s point about learning about China, when I was 17 I spent 5 1/2 weeks in Finland as part of a Youth Exchange program through the Lion’s Club (I’m Finnish American, so it was a natural choice). Before I went, I expected lots of obvious difference, colorful customers, etc. When I arrived, it seemed like I was still in America, except for the language. After a while though, I started to see the cultural differences that weren’t so obvious, the things that textbooks don’t usually mention, and it became clear I wasn’t in America anymore. Some things are best seen in person– if possible.

    • NathanDST

      My own high school did very little to teach about religions of the world. That may have changed by now -I graduated in 1997- but I’d be surprised.

      • theoldadam

        Nor mine. Nothing, really.

  • smrnda

    When you mentioned widespread illiteracy about religion in the US, what I wanted to ask was “widespread illiteracy about religion as opposed to widespread ignorance of just facts in general?” This isn’t the best-informed country out there, and I think ignorance about religion is just a symptom of ignorance about important issues in general.

    Worst is that I think ignorance is probably fueled by religious leaders. I mean, how many Christians would pass themselves off as experts about Muslims, Jews, Hindus or atheists and have no idea what they’re talking about? Religious leaders do a great job making themselves seem like experts when they’re not, and they get their followers to accept what they say uncritically, and to be mistrustful of other sources of knowledge. Your pastor tells you ‘what Muslims believe’ and it’s accepted, tells you that global warming isn’t happening, and people buy it, and then they believe that there’s a conspiracy among ‘experts’ to feed them lies, and why? Because they disagree with what they heard in church.

  • John Morrison

    I’m in full agreement with the author of this blog and the Harvard professor quoted in the article. How can one understand world history, or with respect to current events, the turmoil in large parts of our world, without a working understanding of the major faiths. No one, least of all me, is suggesting anything approaching a theology course. A carefully constructed curriculum and a screened teacher without an agenda will obviate problems. Moreover, I’m convinced some of the Islamophobia and/or anti-Semitism in the West is based on ignorance. I also agree that other subjects (math and science, and language skills) need priority over this.

  • vorjack

    As someone who works in the history field, I agree completely with the sentiment. There are a lot of areas of American history that can’t really be understood without knowing a bit about the religious beliefs of the participants.

    But as a teacher’s kid I gotta say, damn, that’s opening a can of worms. I grew up in North Carolina, and I remember parents who scrutinized every book in English class for unacceptable “non-Christian” messages. I can’t imagine the screaming that would result if you suggest a field trip to a mosque.

    Think for a second about the poor teachers and school boards who would be caught in the middle here. When folks talk about teaching about religion, they almost always mean teaching a friendly version of their own religion. It’s going to come as a rude shock to a huge number of parents when little Johnny learns about religions that aren’t evangelical Christianity, or even learns some of the history of Christianity.

    • James Croft

      You’re so right – the difference between what would be educationally ideal and what is politically and practically feasible is enormous in this area, and that’s one of the great challenges of educational reform.

  • theoldadam

    I think it ought be an elective.

    • theoldadam

      With parental consent, I might add.

      • James Croft

        In the UK there is an element of parental consent still, I believe, in that parents can opt-out of religious education classes even though they are part of the required national curriculum.

        • Jim Sharp

          It could be done in a fashion similar to how sex education units are currently handled – send the parents a letter in advance which describes the curriculum and offers them the opportunity to personally review the materials if they so desire. The parents then sign the letter and indicate if they want their child to participate in the unit or receive an alternate assignment for that part of the course.

  • John W. Morehead

    This Evangelical is in full agreement with you on the central premise of your essay, the notion that whether we like it or not, religion is an important part of our world that contributes to good and ill for our planet. Therefore, some kind of education is needed on this topic. Stephen Prothero has spoken eloquently of our religious illiteracy, and often Evangelicals lag far behind atheists and Mormons in this area, as a Pew Forum Survey revealed. We must work across religious and irreligious traditions to find a way to provide religious literacy in ways that respects the separation of church and state, and yet provides for the best of the common good in the public square.

    • James Croft


  • Randall Paul

    Thanks for this piece that opens the discussion on this important topic. You might be aware that an organization exists at Harvard called the Foundation for Religious Literacy. It is sponsored by the Divinity School and Bruce McEver. Also the Freedom Foundation’s First Amendment Center (Charles Haynes in charge of religion section) has an excellent pedagogical training manual for middle and high school level teachers to help them teach ABOUT religions without advocating or deprecating them. Claremont Graduate School in the past decade has taken a different approach. Claremont has recruited exceptional professors who are believers in their own traditions to hold chairs in that tradition, Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, etc. The time will come when Claremont will have a chair in Humanism as another traditional worldview. Students at Claremont take the usual “religious studies” classes that teach about religions, and then they can learn from intelligent professors who teach them why their religious worldview is so compelling to them. Because the courses are elective at the university level there is no issue of learning from an advocate of a particular Way. Indeed, most universities referee fights in all “secular” departments between professors that advocate contested theories in the class rooms. That could be the very definition of liberal education! The rich and moving experience of learning WHY a person has chosen to follow a way of life could not provide a more important (or interesting!) education. Indeed, we are coming slowly to see that all our disciplines could benefit from teleological scrutiny. This analysis would expose the human reality that William James noted: we tend to choose our worldview theory to support our experiential/aesthetic temperament. (The Sentiment of Rationality) When we ask WHY we desire to affirm through our actions what we believe, things get interesting for everyone.

    I would only take issue with one phasing about parental teaching in your article. I think you would agree that we are ALL brainwashed by our environment all life long. Of course it is more heavy in early years when we have less comparative experience. But perspectivalism affirms that some substantial influence of environment is beyond our control even when we think we are critical thinkers. So, we are still “growing children” at age 80 being “brainwashed” by the given around us. Parents teach their kids their worldview by default. They teach their values and beliefs to their kids by their behavior as well as their words. No one gets an objective upbringing–we are all taught before we can discern by broad experiential comparison–and even then, the breadth of comparison is tiny for a single adult human. This is why I love the tone and content of your work. You seem to take those with opposing world views as serious fellow travelers from whom you can learn and to whom you can impart your higher (as you MUST see it) truth.

  • Earl Shugerman

    Great post.

    • James Croft

      Thank you!

  • Bill S

    “Dan Dennett wants comparative religion classes for much the same reason that I’m ok with them. It speeds up the conversion from religious to secular in a hurry.”

    Did he really say that? Good for him. I just read Breaking the Spell and I am now reading Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I don’t agree with a public school bringing students anywhere whether it be a church, mosque or temple to pray. Observe yes. Pray no.

  • David Marshall

    I think this article is folly, and suspect (on first reading, though not knowing Croft) that it represents a typical, possibly unConstitutional, and certainly devious secular humanist attempt to undermine its main intellectual challenger, that is Christianity.

    And no, I’m not a snake-handling fundamentalist from the Ozarks. I have a doctorate in theology of religions, and my books get good reviews from leading scholars. I also have a certain amount of experience in public schools, which I respect more than most conversatives in many ways, but that can be quite biased and misleading on religion. And yes, Daniel Dennett’s ignorant propaganda about religion (he doesn’t know what he’s talking about) gets brought into the public school sometimes, too.

    I think I’ll write a rebuttal to Croft’s argument on my blog. I already rebutted (as space permitted) Dennett’s theory of the origin of religion in The Truth Behind the New Atheism.

  • Bill S

    Now that I have bought into the New Atheism, I am having trouble understanding their theories such as the library of Mendell. They seem to insist that everything happens by random and that it is just the near infinite number of chances that one pans out. I know that the concept of intelligent design is laughable to them, but to me it makes perfect sense. Other than that I agree with them entirely about the major religions of this world.

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