Religious Ignorance and Rectification

I am sure that many of my readers have already seen or heard of Stephen Prothero’s new book concerning American’s woeful ignorance of religion, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. One of the more amusing statistics cited was that a significant portion of high school seniors believe that Sodom and Gomorra were husband and wife. Having just gone over Gen. 19 with my students I shared this with them and one quipped, “Well perhaps domestic partners?”

As part of the promotion for his book Prothero has a piece in The Chronicle Review (subscription only, but this email link will be good for 5 days), “Worshipping in Ignorance.” His argument is that

Rather than follow Harvard’s lead and turn a blind eye to our crisis of religious ignorance [by not requiring a religious-studies course, as they had considered], American colleges should be addressing this problem by doing what Harvard failed to do: requiring a religious-studies course of all undergraduates.

I asked my students, most of them having recently graduated from HS if they thought that it would be reasonable and possible to have a course on the Bible as literature taught in their schools. (This is a course on Genesis and I teach it in what I hope is a very non-sectarian manner.) Some commented that their public school would never go for it, others said that they didn’t think that most teachers would be able to teach the course without upsetting someone. They all felt that it is necessary. (Of course this is a self-selecting group given that they are enrolled in a course on the Bible!)

Prothero seems to be seeking his own via media, in contrast with “the secular left” and “the religious right,” and sets his position in contrast with that of George Marsden of Notre Dame and Warren Nord of UNC-CH.

What Marsden and Nord seem to want is to make colleges and universities (or pockets of them) into religious places once again — to resurrect the big questions of God, creation, and sin not only in departments of religion but also in courses in philosophy and economics and history and political science. My proposal is more modest and less controversial. I simply want to persuade the lords of American higher education to stop trivializing this subject. There is no reason not to expect from America’s future leaders at least minimal religious literacy.

I am inclined to agree with Prothero but I am not so sure about mandating religious studies courses. Having taught Intro to Religious Studies I feel that all too often they are the merest of samplings. And even at a college level my concern would be that of my students whose instincts told them that most teachers would not have the sensitivity to treat the material (not to mention the cultures and theological concerns) sensitively. I sit and have sat on various curricular committees and overhauled requirements before. It is never easy and I am loathe to pile on yet another box to be checked on the degree audit.

The first step certainly is to make sure that the teaching of religions receives greater acceptance in the academy. I proposed and taught a course called “Our Religious Experience(s).” The cheesy title was intended to reflect that all of us, even those who do not profess a religious faith, have “experiences” with religion. Surely the study of religion, history, society, and so on is reasonable for a freshman seminar. But no, one professor of philosophy stood up and objected, “the title implies that there is such a thing as a religious experience.” Jonathan Culler, like Richard Dawkins after him, decries religion as one of the greatest evils of humanity and has actively worked to keep the teaching of religions out of his academy (and my alma mater).

So before we consider requiring our students to take a course in religious studies how about we require our faculty to acknowledge the importance of the discipline and the material (and communities, cultures, etc.) that we study.

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