The Need for Religious Literacy Programs

February 17, 2010

Religious Literacy programs are a needed addition to general curriculum and a better alternative to the ill-thought out “prayer in school” campaigns. I’ve written about why crying out for the return of prayer in public schools is a misunderstood and negative request  (see:   ). To briefly reiterate the main point of my argument, no one in this country can stop anyone from praying anywhere or anytime, not in public schools or in the workplace. Not for prayer in the basic essence – silently meditating, conversing with your God or Creator. You can pray silently to yourself at any place you wish and address that prayer to whatever it is that you believe in. Now, we’ve seen in recent airport rentention scandals that if you pray using accessories on flights you might risk detention (such as the Jew who used the teffelin in his prayer on  recent flight being held and searched), especially if you’re of a non-Christian religion or of non-American nationality. But in the public school system any student can silently pray before a meal, before a test, before an athletic competition. What people shouting to bring public prayer back seem to want is school-sanctioned and teacher-led public prayer— a recipe for exclusion, prejudice, and tension that does nothing but make prayer a public show of “look at me” and allows any teacher to push their particular religion and theologocail viewpoint on an entire class, causing the religious minorities to be “set apart.”

No, what is needed, as evidenced by the detention of Jews praying on airplanes and fundamentalists rallying out for public-sanctioned prayer in schools, are religious literacy courses in public schools. I’ll admit at the forefront that these are tricky—initiating them anywhere is likely to cause controversy, and if they’re not put together correctly and fully monitored, they can slip into something very inappropriate.  But if planned and administered correctly, these courses could be very powerful, educational ways of increasing knowledge, instilling respect for diversity, and removing stigmas and prejudices.

Like it or not, even an Atheist or someone of an anti-organized religion viewpoint must agree that America and Canada are both still largely religious countries. A study at Baylor University in 2006, “American Piety in the 21st Century,” featured statistics showing that 89 percent of Americans are affiliated with a denomination or religious group and of those non-affiliated, 62.9 percent claimed to believe in God or a higher power. Numbers for Canadians closely mirror these American stats as well.  So, even if you choose to practice no religion and have no personal spiritual beliefs, if you live in this country you are still surrounded by people who do. If you do practice a religion, even if you attend a church or faith gathering on a regular basis, chances are you or many of your fellow church family are lacking in much knowledge in  theology, church history, and the beliefs of those outside of your faith tradition and religion.

A good religious literacy program aims to educate students about religious history, differing theological viewpoints, and knowledge about the many faiths of the world. I believe this type of course is needed now more than ever. Knowledge of one’s own faith and the history of your tradition informs you to know when others invoke false claims about it. Politically, leaders call on religious concepts frequently, so a working knowledge of what they are invoking and if they are using or misusing it is necessary.  Living in America, knowing the religious history of this country is important—what have we done in the past? What did that cause? What can we learn about that to keep from making the same mistake twice? Also, religion works its way into much of classic and contemporary literature, music, film, and society, so having knowledge about Judaism and Christianity is important to fully grasp everything from American History to Shakespeare. But moving beyond this, we live at a time in this country when many faiths and traditions are now all around us. If you live in any medium-sized city, chances are that it’s now  populated not only by Jews, Christians and the non-religious, but  also Muslims, Budhists, Sikhs, Hindus, etc. The media and popular opinion are quick to misrepresent and stereotype those of other religions, especially at  a time when many Americans think only of jihad and war when they hear of Islam. Religious literacy is important by teaching what the “other” believes so that we can have a better understanding of our new neighbors and so that we don’t fall victim to stereotyping and disrespecting them.  Knowing the mistakes our own traditions have made in the past in regards to war, violence and misusing our texts can keep us from becoming too misguidely judgemental  to those of other faiths. A move to a more accepting, tolerant and pluralistic America is dependant on knowledge and acceptance of the myriad differences now present within it.

A positive Religious Literacy course must be taught fairly—without attempts to persuade the students to adopt one belief over another, without pushing the teacher’s own views, and without castigating any faith. Texts must be approached from an academic stance—so if the class is reading an excerpt from the Bible, the teacher must explain that different groups approach the text in different ways, that some may hold that biblical text is inerrant and without transmission flaw through its history but that others view it as a particular group (s) in history’s record of grappling with their view of God. So a bit of historical-context and criticism can be used and teachers can talk about non-biblical history that supports or dissupports biblical claims and point out that different people take such findings in different ways.

It’s a course that’s apt to find opposition from all sides of the polical spectrum when discussed, and tweaking it to appease one side will anger the other, but if it’s approached as objectively and educationally-minded as possible, such courses could do great things in our educational system—and would be much more productive and positive than state-sanctioned and teacher-led public prayer in the classroom.


One Response to “The Need for Religious Literacy Programs”

  1. You’ve made some really great points. Thanks for the article.

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