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Religious Illiteracy and Religious Freedom

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

"Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion." So writes Dr. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, in his 2007 book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in September 2010, supports Prothero's stark assessment.

Some examples: Fewer than half of Americans can name even one of the four Gospels, only a third know that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, and barely half know that the Qur'an is the Muslim holy book. And it's not just that religious groups don't know about each other's faiths. Many Americans are disturbingly ignorant about the basic tenets of their own traditions. In the Pew survey, Jews and Atheists/Agnostics scored higher on knowledge about Christianity than all Christian groups except Mormons and White Evangelicals. Jews and Atheists/Agnostics also had more knowledge of world religions that any other groups, while Protestants had the least.

This kind of religious ignorance is not simply about trivial factoids. The general lack of knowledge reflected in these and other studies raise deep concerns for our pluralistic society. It creates a vacuum all too easily filled with misinformation and stereotypes, often leading to increased intolerance and fear. Worse, when coupled with the widespread and equally disturbing misunderstanding about what the Constitution says about religion, this kind of ignorance poses a serious threat to religious freedom.

In a recent survey by the First Amendment Center, 61% of Americans could name Freedom of Speech as a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, but only 23% could name Freedom of Religion. In the same survey, while two-thirds of Americans either strongly or mildly agreed that the First Amendment requires a clear separation of church and state, more than half (53%) incorrectly agreed that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation.

With religious illiteracy so widespread, it should not be surprising when we see it displayed by candidates for public office, though it is especially disturbing in this context. In the 2010 election cycle, the Republican candidate for Secretary of State in Minnesota, Dan Severson, argued in radio interviews that there was no requirement for separation of church and state because the U.S. is a Christian nation. More prominently, during a debate between the two candidates for U.S. Senator from Delaware, Republican/Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell expressed bewilderment when told that the Constitution prohibits the government from establishing any religion, replying: "You're telling me that's in the first amendment?" (Both Severson and O'Donnell lost their election bids.)

Prothero and other scholars argue that at least part of the remedy for this woeful state of religious illiteracy is to include instruction about religion in the public schools. I agree with this, and with Prothero's claim that this is justified not on religious grounds, but on secular ones – or what we might call civic grounds. Basic knowledge of world religions, including Christianity, is essential for responsible citizenship in our increasingly pluralistic world. Yet here, too, common misunderstandings of constitutional requirements often get in the way of these kinds of educational moves.

The Pew survey found that while 9 in 10 Americans know that public school teachers cannot lead their classes in prayer, less than 1 in 4 (23%) know that teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 36% know that public schools may teach courses on comparative religion. Yet the Supreme Court has always affirmed that the general study of religion in public schools, including study of the Bible and other religious texts as part of courses in history, literature, or world religions, is fully consistent with the First Amendment. As the Pew survey notes, "many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are." Good curricula for these purposes are available; one useful resource is the website of the First Amendment Center.

Religious freedom is not served by ignorance. We should relish, not fear, the opportunity to learn about each others' faith traditions. This will do more than give us important knowledge. It will help us become more tolerant, less subject to the politics of fear.

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