a cross to barephoto: Helen Sotiriadis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Where did you read the Bible?” she asked. My friend Karin used to teach religion in a Swedish public elementary school, which is why her question made so much sense to her but so little sense to me.

“In Europe,” she explained, “we see the clips of your news commentators, we see your President getting sworn in on a Bible, we know America is intensely Christian. But where do you  learn it? Is it taught in the public schools, or do you just have really active Sunday schools, or what?” I quickly reassured her that in America, we keep religion out of the schools, since we are a secular nation.

“So where did you learn about Christianity?” she persisted. I had never considered the question before. I was raised Episcopalian, sort of, but my family rarely attended church. I only really started learning about Christianity when, having converted to Buddhism, I started reading books about world religions and would skim the chapter on Christianity on my way to the chapter on Buddhism. After I explained all this, Karin gave me a funny look and changed the subject. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about American religion.

American religion is very strange. At first, I thought my ignorance was an aberration, that I had been isolated in my private New England high school from the Bible-reading fervor that consumes America. The more I talked to my American friends, though — friends from all over the country — the more I began to get a sense for what I consider to be the unifying characteristic of nearly all American religion. It isn’t devoutness, or extremism, or reactionary zeal, but something much simpler: profound ignorance. One scholar, Stephen Prothero, summarizes the painful truth well in his book Religious Literacy:

“The paradox is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”

Prothero backs up these accusations with some quite compelling studies. To give just two examples: Only half of American adults could identify any one of the four Gospels, and only a third were able to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity.

Well, so what? Many of my non-religious friends would take that sort of statistic as a sign of the worldwide process of secularization and the weakening stranglehold of the religious right on American public life. For them, America’s religious illiteracy proves what Nietzsche wrote over a century ago: “God is dead.”

Well, is He? Because if so, Karin’s question is something of an anachronism: Why read the Bible if religion is on its way out the door? The notion that rationality and modernity have been hammering nails in religion’s coffin ever since the Enlightenment is what sociologists call the secularization thesis, and until very recently, the secularization thesis was pretty much taken for granted within academic circles.

The funny thing is, we don’t really have any evidence for it. We’ve been assuming for a long time that religion is dying, but the world around us seems to be demonstrating just the opposite. As Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, writes in his essay “The Desecularization of the World,” “The world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.” He goes on to cite the two notable exceptions to this rule: Western Europe and academia.

Well, I guess God might be dead-ish for Western Europeans and academic elites, but Western Europe is a pretty small corner of the world, and even we academic types have to come down off the hill sometimes. When we do, we find ourselves crippled by an education system that pretends religion does not exist. As has become increasingly clear ever since September 11, religion is alive and kicking, and America is blundering its way through the 21st century, its education system trapped in the secularist fantasies of Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment pals.

This American secularity is strange, perhaps even stranger than American religion. We are okay forcing our children to swear a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, but the vast majority of public schools aren’t okay teaching our children who Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha was. These figures may or may not have been divine (how should I know?), but let’s not for a second pretend they don’t matter. Every American should graduate from high school with at least a basic understanding of the five major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), religions which most Americans today have a hard time even naming.

So where did you read the Bible? What about the Qur’an? The Bhagavad Gita? Let’s turn our public schools into a safe, critical environment where these texts, so foundational to the cultures of the world, can be read. Until we do, America shall remain crippled, staggering blindly through a world where religion, like it or not, still matters.

Tom MooreTom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences of Cornell University. He may be reached at tmoore@cornellsun.com. This commentary first appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun on September 27, 2011.

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As a child, I went to Sunday School but never paid attention. As a young adult, I saw a World Religions class in college but opted to do my own reading instead. I never actually read the Bible (and by that, I mean the Hebrew Bible) until I began the process of converting to Judaism, at age 35.

My "ignorance" was of my own doing - I was offered the opportunity to learn about the Christian Bible when I was younger, but I declined. I was interested in finding my own way, as are younger people of today. If my parents had forced me to continue with religious classes, I would have ended up resentful of them, and of the religion. Instead, I finally came to realize that while I wanted to have a spiritual life, it was not in the religion in which I was raised. 

Your friend from Sweden learned Christianity in school because it is the official religion in Sweden. Because the United States has no official religion, there is no role for that sort of education in school, and it is, rightfully so, taken care of in our religious institutions, which are kept separate from schools for a good reason. If you are to suggest teaching "the Bible" to children, I would ask which Bible? The Hebrew Bible? A Christian Bible? Which Christian Bible - there are many versions out there. What about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and the multiple other religions that we find in the United States? What about Atheism?

Your proposition is a dangerous one. Our country was founded by people who wanted to practice their religion freely (or in some cases, not practice religion). Teaching the Bible, whatever form, has no place in a public educational system. We already have enough people who are trying to force their religion down others' throats - please do not suggest that we go against the freedoms outlined in our Constitution and implement such a thing.

I wonder if you read this article at all.  You argue "what about Islam, Buddhism..."  The author clearly wrote that those religions should be taught along with Christianity.  It is the last sentence of the penultimate paragraph. It seems to me that what you fear is a bible study course, and what the author is proposing is a religious studies course.  Those are two different things.

Very sharp criticism of the rather ironic hypocrisy evident in our culture today. As you point out, we are so motivated by religious ideals- politically, culturally, yet unable to understand the origins, historicity, and spiritual theologies behind them. As a meager Religious Studies Bachelor's degree holder, I certainly agree with the need for more education regarding these vastly important texts. Additionally I can say that upon my intricate study of each of these foundational faiths, I can piece together what makes us similar, instead of what makes us different. Nice contribution, Tom.

I listened to readings in the Episcopal church growing up, but my mind was often wandering away from the chapel and I didn't really retain much. In high school I read the gospel of Matthew after my mother got a role in Godspell at the community theatre. It wasn't until college where my school had a mandatory "core" class for three years of world literature, that I was exposed to anything more. My sophomore year we had to read the Qur'an, the Bhagavad Gita, the old testament story of Job, and a few other religious pieces as historical texts. I found it fascinating, especially since I'd never known more than Christianity and Judaism. I joined a student interfaith group made up of mostly Pagans and Wiccans, who brought more views to the table. It was amazing and enlightening. They were more well versed in religion, if only because they'd questioned where they fit and what they believed and had read up on many religious beliefs; we all were encouraged to learn more and decide for ourselves. I have continued to find the study of religions and beliefs fascinating, and I do think that a basic understanding of faith and religion is important in understanding culture and even language.

Into to major religions used to be a required college fross course,

Everyone should know the five major religions and their multi-millions of variations for what they are, ineffective self-destructive "reactions to the void" which have helped bring us to the brink. We should also be aware of the "ideal reaction" which would give us a chance to save humanity if we have time and think it matters that humanity survives. I would explain further but I already have. http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poem/

Superbly insightful and well written.  I seem to recall that one of the reasons that Krista Tippett began her "Speaking of Faith" programs was because the thing that matters most to a large majority of us (religion) is the thing we talk least about.  Thanks for your essay!

Nice piece. I do remember learning about the World Religions in World History class although the info was at times overly general and sometimes just wrong, especially on Islam (this was pre-9/11).

What a poignant article!
I was born and raised in Germany where we had religion class all throughout our school careers. Although I cannot claim to have read the bible front to back, I have gained a pretty good overview of all the "big" story lines. At the same time we also learned about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism as well as other ethics and philosophies... all the way to Marxism and Nietzsche.
 This educational exposure to Christianity (Catholicism in specific) did little to convert or "taint" me. The only thing it did was give me an awareness of the world's diversity and how yet, there are still commonly shared values throughout the entire world.
More importantly it made non-Christians less intimidating and brought them closer to my awareness as people like you and me.
Personally I broke with my organized Christianity roots when I was 14, but never lost the wealth and relevance of stories and rituals absorbed from them.

I haven't read the other responses, so this may be redundant. However, my thought has been that America was founded on a duality, leaving room to hedge all bets. For instance: the mythological first settlers are referred to as "seeking religious freedom." Well, they sought freedom for themselves, but could not tolerate other religions, e.g Quakerism. Firther, they were in addition to seeking freedom to espose thier religious point of view, seeking political freedom from Western European governments intrinsically tied to religiosity.

Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers agreed to write the Declaration of Independence to include that ". . .all me are created equal...," etc. But that was not what they meant. Only white, landowning men were enfranchised in the polictal experiement.

If one accepts Christainity in its best sense, a capitalist society could not exist. So, at the end of the day, I would have to consider that the only way to keep the duality going is to keep religion out of a democracy based on a capitist economic system. But, having said all that, I thin world religions should be taught in every school in the U.S. as a way to help students interrogate basic tenants of both governments and philosophy-especially Nietzsche.

I agree with your comment on Capitalism, and I've not doubt that the Puritans would have ideally liked to have seen a nation where only their brand of Christianity would be taught.  But I think they were more practical than that and the reality was that if you disagreed with them then you were asked to leave their colony. 

I do not agree that the majority of the Founding Fathers believed that non-whites on non-landowners were not created equal.  They had to deal with the same democratic hindrances that arise with conflicts of agendas.  Compromises had to be made in order to reach the primary objective of setting up a working federal government.  The truth is that protesting against the powerful system of slavery was not the immediate concern at the time.  The landowning requirement had more to due with the level of education and vested interest of voters.  Back then, the majority of the population had little understanding about politics and little resources to keep abreast of issues.  The political issues of the day varied significantly between the colonies.

And you can credit those early Puritans for setting up the system of education in the U.S. that fostered the growth of literacy and higher education.

All true.  Read the Quraan and the Bible in public school. My Dad taught me the Quraan. The first word of the Quraan is "Read". Until we know each other, we wont be true fiends, we should be friends.. we share this good land: America. We are brothers and sisters in humanity.. the beauty of human relations is that we work together for  love..mercy..justice

The Quran does not teach that all are brothers and sisters in humanity.

At some point I missed the LEAP to concluding that America "shall remain crippled, staggering blindly."  My own sense is that our species continues to seek for meaning in familiar patterns of expression.  When we build our own vocabularies, we discover shared meaning through affiliation with others.  Literature and ritual are basically vessels of shared meaning (so is Beethoven's 3rd Symphony--and string theory equations).  O.K.?  There can be such richness in discovering and embracing "Story"--and shared meaning can be either a source of intoxicating nostalgia, and/or circumspect guidance for navigating personal or collective challenges through our Vale of Tears.  In developing Understanding, my sense is that we "set aside" what is sacred (even Homer's Odyssey) from what is secular.  IT'S ALL GOOD.

Oh, for sure, it's all good, and I never meant to give religion a monopoly on shared meaning. The value of religiosity in and of itself is a whole different debate, though, and not what the column is about. My point is not that we should be more religious. My point is that, because many people are religious, religious illiteracy severely limits our understanding of the world around us. This is a different question entirely from the search for meaning.