Religion in public schools: America is religious, but also illiterate of religion

Published: Saturday, Dec. 1 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Students in the Modesto School District in California are required to take World Religions in their freshman year of high school and must pass the course before graduating.

allison soukhamthath, Allison Soukhamthath

MODESTO, Calif. — It was a teacher's dream. One day while shopping, Sherry McIntyre, who teaches world religions at Johansen High School in Modesto, Calif., was approached by a former student who not only recognized her, but said her class had made a difference in his life.

"He told me that his family was together and someone had made a negative comment about another religion that was inaccurate," McIntyre said. "It was turning into a negative conversation when he stepped in and said, 'That's not true.' He then told me, 'I knew it wasn't true because of your class.'"

It sounds like a simple story, but for McIntyre, it captures the precise reason she is in her 13th year of teaching world religions at Johansen. "I always tell my kids that we treat each other with prejudice out of fear, and fear comes from ignorance. So the goal of this class is to replace your lack of knowledge with wisdom. By doing so we will remove your fears and hopefully prejudice will disappear."

America is famously religious, but also famously illiterate of religion. Only about half of Americans know, for example, that the Quran is the holy book of Islam or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. So why is Modesto School District the only one in the nation requiring students to take a world religions course?

Not making the case

Part of the problem is widespread misunderstanding regarding U.S. law. According to a 2010 Pew Forum survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans erroneously believe that the Constitution forbids public schools from offering a course on religion.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, said courts have ruled that schools must be neutral, but that doesn't mean they must ignore religion. On the contrary, ignoring religion gives preferential treatment to a strictly secular worldview, he said.

Haynes, a leading expert on the issue of religious education in public schools, argues that all high school students should be required to take a world religions course. To him, it's simply a matter of constitutional neutrality, educational necessity and civic fairness.

In his book "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't," Boston University professor Stephen Prothero wrote, "None of the classic events in American history — the Revolution, the Civil War, the New Deal, the Reagan Revolution — can be understood without some knowledge of the religious motivations of the generals, soldiers, thinkers, politicians, and voters who made them happen."

Haynes concurs. "For better and for worse, religious convictions play a central role in shaping events in America and throughout the world," he wrote in Kappan magazine earlier this year. Kappan is published by Phi Delta Kappa, a professional organization for educators.

"For students to be given the impression in 12 years of public schooling that they can learn everything they need to know about almost everything, and learn nothing about religion, and be educated people, is simply a bad education, and it's unfair," Haynes said.

Fear factor

Haynes and Jennie Sweeney, who designed and implemented Modesto's course in 2000, both agree that beyond the constitutional misunderstanding, four fears make it difficult for public schools to implement a world religions course.

First is the fear of controversy. Most school districts are risk averse and administrators are keen to avoid lawsuits and community conflicts.

Second, minority religions and nonbelievers are afraid of returning to a time when the majority religion (i.e. Protestantism) dominated American public life.

Third, many religious believers are wary of an academic approach to religion, fearing it will denigrate their deeply held beliefs.

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