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Reading, 'Rithmetic, and Religion

Every American high school student should have a basic education in comparative religion

By Avishai D. Don

In the United States, 53 percent of Protestants can’t identify Martin Luther. Less than half of America knows that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. While 82 percent of the country knows that Mother Teresa was Catholic, almost half of all Catholics in the United States are unaware of their church’s doctrine of transubstantiation.

This is just a sample of the findings of an infamous Pew Research poll published in September 2010. The results indicate that we are a deeply religious country suffering a pandemic of religious illiteracy—including, shockingly, about the very religions that we practice. In an increasingly globalized society, and especially post-9/11, this sort of ignorance about world religions is unacceptable. A comparative religion curriculum should be as mandatory in American high schools as curricula in biology or American history

Hesitancy towards such a proposal is understandable. Critics, of course, correctly insist that there exists a separation of church and state in this country and that the American government is secular even if the American people aren’t. Allowing the government to facilitate religious learning, even for a secular purpose, one might argue, is counterproductive to the aim of keeping religion and politics in America scrupulously separate.

But separation of church and state is exactly why we ought to have a high school curriculum on religion. The purpose of the Establishment Clause is to prevent federal endorsement of one particular religion—respecting “an” established religion, in the amendment’s language. But teaching all religions together, without any emphasis on a particular religion, leads to pluralism, not sectarianism. Reading excerpts of the Bhagavad-Gita or the Koran, while qualifying their study with phrases like “Hindus believe” or “Muslims believe,” imposes neither religion on students but increases tolerance of both. With cultural diffusion as prevalent as ever in the modern era, understanding the religion of a society different than your own is as important—if not more—as understanding the language that society speaks.

Furthermore, a high school curriculum in comparative religion is entirely constitutional. Although it is illegal for a high school instructor in America to lead the class in prayer, for example, it is perfectly legal for a teacher to read from religious texts as examples of world literature. This is a fact even acknowledged by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. As they state on their website, “the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires the government to be neutral with respect to religion,” but “because the Bible has considerable significance in Western literature and history, it may be incorporated into a public-school curriculum.” Ironically, the Pew poll revealed that 77 percent of the country does not know this, most likely because of civil liberties groups that cry foul at even the slightest endorsement of religious content in public schools.

Curing religious illiteracy in the U.S. is also essential to ensuring informed political discussion. Consider, for example, Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Over the course of his campaign, Romney has been the victim of numerous smears because of his faith. In publications as mainstream as the New York Times, Romney’s detractors have falsely accused the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of seeking to take over the government in order to establish a theocracy in this country. And with Rick Santorum out of the running for the general election, an evangelical leader close to the Romney campaign has predicted that Romney’s critics will start turning up the heat on his faith, in hopes of “turn[ing] off independents who say ‘I don’t want to vote for a guy that believes that.’” Having a basic understanding of what a religious institution does and does not believe, in other words, has become crucial to being a knowledgeable citizen in this country, and American political discourse would look very different if students were taught this subject in school.

Critics may still claim that teachers would co-opt a curriculum in world religion to impose their own religious ideologies on their students. But this criticism could be leveled at almost every academic discipline. A teacher’s Marxism might influence how he teaches the economics of labor—should we refrain from teaching students economics? An anarchist instructor might attempt to convince her pupils that the American governmental system is inherently unjust—should we abolish civics? American education should be judged on the material it teaches, not on outlying cases in which instructors are unfit to teach it.

At a recent TED Conference, Daniel C. Dennett ’63 made an impassioned plea for a mandated religious curriculum in U.S. schools. A comparative religious education leads to “maximal tolerance for religious freedom,” he argued, and “democracy depends on an informed citizenship.” Dennett is far from a religious enthusiast—in 2006, he penned a book in which he argued that all religions are man-made phenomena. And Dennett’s support is the best proof that one can offer that there is little religious proselytizing in a religious education for high school students. Due to its role in fostering pluralism, informed political decisions, and tolerance, a comparative religion course does far more to preserve the fundamental tenets of the United States than undermine them.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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