Should We Teach Religion in the Public Schools?

Religious-LiteracyHere’s a question that produces opinionated answers. Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy, thinks we should. But it isn’t for the reason most would assume.

First, there are those that think that we need to bring prayer and daily Bible reading back into the public schools. After all, public school was instituted as a way to spread literacy so that everyone could read their Bibles for themselves. The first textbooks taught religious knowledge alongside of ABC’s and arithmetic. Nowadays we use simple words like “apple”, “ball”, and “cake” to teach the ABC’s, but the best-selling American schoolbook for over a century taught this way:

A In Adam’s Fall
   We sinned all.
B Heaven to find;
   The Bible Mind.
C Christ crucify’d
  For sinners dy’d (72).

Early America used textbooks such as this New England Primer, Webster’s Speller, and McGuffey Readers to pump out good little, learned Calvinists. American children were gaining protestant theology along with their education.

But we are a much more diverse country now. And do I really want my children to learn theology from their English teacher? Do I think that it is the commission of public school teachers to preach the gospel? I don’t want my children learning about something like the providence of God from their math teacher anymore than I want them learning Algebra from our pastor.

But this isn’t the plea that Prothero is making either. His “agenda is not religious. It is civic and secular” (15). Prothero introduces his book exposing the complete lack of religious literacy by Americans today. He defines religious literacy as “the ability to understand and use in one’s day-to-day life the basic building blocks of religious traditions—their key terms, symbols, doctrines, practices, sayings, characters, metaphors, and narratives” (12). You see, he doesn’t just think that Christianity is an important religion to teach in the public schools, since there are more professing “Christians in the United States today than there have been in any other country in the history of the world” (12), but Prothero explains the importance of Americans having knowledge of all religious beliefs.

To understand foreign policy in Tibet, for example, one needs to know something about Buddhist monasticism and the Dalai Lama.  To follow the ramifications of the “under God” language in the Pledge of Allegiance, one needs to know about the nuances of both atheism and polytheism. And to fully engage in debates about the war in Iraq, one needs to be informed about jihad and the Islamic tradition of martyrdom…The war on terrorism, is to a great extent—a far greater extent than most American politicians recognize—a war of ideas. To wage that war, one needs to be equipped with ideas—to understand, among other things, the religious underpinnings of Osama bin Laden’s strategy to engage “the crusader-Zionist alliance” in a clash of civilizations (13).

And Prothero does undress the situation for us on how little most Americans know even about the popular faith that they profess to follow. Here is a small sample of the astonishing condition he reports we are in:

  • Only half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels.
  • Most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.
  • Only one-third know that Jesus (no, not Billy Graham) delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  • A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
  • When asked whether the New Testament book of Acts is in the Old Testament, one quarter of Americans say yes. More than a third say that they don’t know.
  • Most Americans don’t know that Jonah is a book in the Bible.
  • Ten percent of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife (30).

However, Prothero is clear that he is not calling for more religious schools. His emphatic claim is that “Americans are not equipped for citizenship (or, for that matter, cocktail party conversation) without a basic understanding of Christianity and the world’s religions” (143). He admits that this will be a very difficult undertaking, to have a religion class with teachers committed to teaching without their own religious bias. There would probably be a good amount of messiness, including lawsuits, that the school system would have to endure. But he thinks it’s worth it for the sake of religious literacy. What do you think?


Related Article: Here's Your Sign --Is God allowed in the public school?



As far as the question that

As far as the question that this post proposes: this is a matter of course material - the content. Since, "we" don't really have a say in what curriculum is chosen for the public schools, does it really matter? Public schools are only really public in that tax payers fund the public school system. We may have a "say" in a school committee meeting or in a discussion with the superintendent, principal or even a teacher. These folks might hear us out and even "give" us the option of our children opting out of a class but once we delegate the responsibility of the education of our children to someone else, for the most part it is also a relinquishing of our authority as to what our children will be taught, who will teach them, and how the material and students will be handled.

Aimee wrote: "American children were gaining protestant theology along with their education."
I would content that this statement reflects a platonic dualism philosophy that separates the sacred from the secular. And I would suggest that those early educators including Webster believed that all truth was God's truth that they did not view the "protestant theology" apart from "their education." Education was integrated. Yes, early public American education was an equipping of youth with the tools for learning through the filter of a biblical worldview.

So, I might answer the question like this: The young people of our country our to be taught how to think, be equipped with the tools for learning, and given the truth (come to know the Truth and delight in Him). Finally, our children are to be exposed to the culture that they live in, be trained to communicate with those they live among and be prepared to give informed answers to those who hold a different worldview.

Thanks Aimee.

Thanks Aimee.

Religion is taught in the

Religion is taught in the public school. When I substitute in Social Studies, World History or American History, I am always interested in what is in the textbook--very general. Values are also taught in the public school, but devoid of religious content and often contradictory to Christian values.

As a believer in the Bible

As a believer in the Bible and the people therein, I agree with DocB because I think it is the best balance possible - to address literature is to address Biblical history, to address politics and current events is to address world religions. I think to discuss teaching Christianity or Judaism is ideal too, though not all would agree with me. There is ignorance to overcome and there is faith to teach and it is not the same coursework that would solve both.

Well that is a big question,

Well that is a big question, isn't it, Caitriona. Where and how Christian parents choose to educate their children is a very personal, passionate topic. We have strong opinions because we know that our beliefs and worldview influence what we teach and how we learn. I believe this is a decision that each family should make in humility.
We do have to be conscious of the different fields of knowledge and who is responsible to teach them. When it comes to theology, that is the church’s responsibility (1 Tim. 4:13; Acts 20:27). But while we see references to the other fields of knowledge in Scripture, it doesn’t teach us a method for learning them. I can’t learn Algebra 1 from studying Scripture. I think it's important for us to realize this distinction. The church does not have the jurisdiction to teach narrower forms of academia from the pulpit. The civil world has the chief responsibility for teaching what falls under natural revelation.
As a parent, we want our children to have the best education we can give them in both areas. As Christian parents, we recognize that many of the secular interpretations of natural revelation are taught under a worldview that is different from the biblical account of creation. Since we are the primary arbitrators for our children’s education, we need to consider all obstacles and benefits of our choices.
I agree with the above comments that we don't teach with a neutral worldview. But I do believe that there are strengths and weaknesses in all of our main choices of public, private, or homeschooling, and that's why we need to make our decisions with humility.
As for the question proposed in my article, I'm not sure. That's why I asked you guys ;) I wonder if it might be a profitable elective in high school to learn about different world religions. Of course, as a parent, I need to be involved in ongoing conversation with my children about the content of their faith, and giving them the tools of discernment to evaluate other religions.

A new friend of mine has

A new friend of mine has helped me to further define, "Speaking the truth in love." So many of us, Christians do well at speaking the truth but we do not do a very good job at the "in love" part. I guess that I should speak for myself, I struggle with the "in love" part. It is possible for us to maintain our biblical orthodoxy (speaking the truth) while at the same time loving and caring for the person we are speaking with (in love). The key I believe is to remember that whomever I am speaking with is an image bearer. We must not dehumanize anyone, no matter what they do or do not believe. We do not have to sacrifice the truth in order to be loving.

Aimee, feel free to take my

Aimee, feel free to take my comment off of here and email me privately if you like. I wanted to ask you about your own philosophy of education. I am assuming that your children are still children, school age or younger. I know that this is a subtopic but what you belief about education as a whole probably contributes to how you approached your post's topic.
You wrote:
"And do I really want my children to learn theology from their English teacher? Do I think that it is the commission of public school teachers to preach the gospel? I don’t want my children learning about something like the providence of God from their math teacher anymore than I want them learning Algebra from our pastor."

What is your philosophy of education?

[...] Should We Teach

[...] Should We Teach Religion in the Public Schools? [...]

Public schools already teach

Public schools already teach religion because education is a religious endeavor. As Van Til points out in Foundations of Christian Education (along with Berkoff), there is no neutrality when it comes to education (or anything else for that matter). Education assumes ultimate questions about the nature of man and reality which can only be answered religiously. Public education takes a religiously secular approach in its ultimate assumptions. With our government, and by implication its schools, trending more and more toward secular humanism I think we could expect the effects of its teaching about religion to be as disastrous and ineffective as the education it tries to impart as a whole already.

I have to agree with Doc B about it being an equivocation. It seems to me that the public school should be concerned more about developing the tools of learning and thinking in order to give students a foundation to study the history of religion.

One of the problems with this

One of the problems with this approach is that there are so many other religions, how much time would that take away from other equally valid subjects? Also, is there any such thing as teaching religions from a neutral position? I've had my children in public school and we homeschooled, and I don't believe there is such a thing as an entirely neutral view. Even in the context of teaching history -- of which I think is a completely UNtaught subject in public education -- how can anyone teaching being entirely neutral? We may have someone teach our children the difference between imputed righteousness and infused righteousness, but what is the teacher going to do when the student indeed asks which one is right? Are teachers mere purveyors of information? I'm not so sure. I think the best way for young people to be prepared for confronting those of other religions (and I live near Toronto, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world) is to teach them to love others. Just my opinion, and I'm sure there are those far smarter than I who would disagree in a moment. :)

No, Tim, haven't read that

No, Tim, haven't read that one. I have so many on the list!
Prothero's book does bring up some good conversation points. We definitely have a problem in our country with religious knowledge. I think in some ways we have made it so subjective, that faith isn't something that people think to add content to. But it would be tough to get a textbook together that different professing religions would agree on. For example, defining evangelical Christianity these days can be like nailing jello to a tree. Sad.
And, yes, I wouldn't want my impressionable child to have the sense that all religions are valid. But in our culture, most need to be tolerated. In that sense, I would like to have those discussions on different levels, to strengthen their faith in the truth of Christianity's claims. And, yes, literacy in general seems to be an issue. I've heard several professors complain that with the texting/technology, they are getting classrooms of college students who cannot write. I think another contributor is that the system has computers grading standardized writing tests now. How can a computer grade writing?

agree Kim. While teaching the

agree Kim. While teaching the BIBLE you can get a better understanding of all major religions and their origins. Exactly how intimitaely do I need to know other religions? I can answer all the Christian questions above. Just because people are going around saying they are Christians does not necessarily make it so. I know many people that would claim Christianity just because that's what their parents said. However, this is already being sliiped into curriculum without our consent. My son takes a "Global Perspectives" class and has told me many things about the muslim religion and Koran. I feel like I've grounded my son enough for him to be ok. He has already gotten into some conversations about Jesus with his teacher. My three girls are homeschooled because they are not as solid thinkers as my son are way more easily decieved. To sum it's a fine line! Like Grace and loving the sinner but not the sin,'s a tight rope we walk and this is one of those things that I'd rather not add.

If accurately described,

If accurately described, Prothero has committed the error of equivocation. He's not talking about teaching religion, but about teaching history. And yes, I'm in favor of teaching history in the public schools.

In other words, yes, I am in favor of a public school teacher explaining the difference between infused righteousness and imputed righteousness. No, I'm not in favor of her telling the students which one is to be believed.

Kim brings up some good

Kim brings up some good cautions, but I can also see what Prothero is driving at. How can we engage with others who believe so differently from us if we don't understand where they are coming from, what their values are? I think it's an age-old problem, though, and for Christians it's an eternal one as well. Anyone without the Spirit will never understand where we are coming from.

On the other hand, a dearth of religious literacy seems a shame too. When I read Shakespeare, for example, I get a lot of his jokes and nuances because I know the Bible. Someone without that background knowledge will miss out on half the fun of reading Shakespeare.

And as for returning to the days when the text books taught doctrine, no thanks. Even in the short excerpt you give above on ABC, I see a problem. I don't read (mind) the Bible in order to find heaven. Instead, the Bread of Heaven came to find me.


P.S. Have you read the The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster's Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture? It's an interesting biography, and perhaps make more of Webster's contribution to the founding of the country than is warranted but it is really interesting on the subject of early American education and the development of the modern lexicography..

A number of years ago, in the

A number of years ago, in the city I lived, the school board decided that religion could be taught in schools; that included the local Wiccans. I ended up homeschooling. My concern about religions being taught in school is that it creates an "all religions are valid" view. The school boards in this country anyway would better spend their time teaching children to read adequately and write articulately. My daughter, in her work teaching first year university students says that many of them bare barely literate, and there they are in university. We can certainly teach our children in schools about the heritage of their country, but I would be very concerned that it was not the religion of the bible.

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