Friday, January 14, 2005

Not Enough Faith

I've not checked, but I'm sure this has made the rounds on many a blog. But the headline is a little too funny, a little too appropriate, though certainly not a little too believable, to pass up.

A Nation of Faith and Religious Illiterates

The Dutch are four times less likely than Americans to believe in miracles, hell and biblical inerrancy. The euro does not trust in God. But here is the paradox: Although Americans are far more religious than Europeans, they know far less about religion.

In Europe, religious education is the rule from the elementary grades on. So Austrians, Norwegians and the Irish can tell you about the Seven Deadly Sins or the Five Pillars of Islam. But, according to a 1997 poll, only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the most basic of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12% think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. That paints a picture of a nation that believes God speaks in Scripture but that can't be bothered to read what he has to say.

The solution offered in this commentary is, apparently, that U.S. schools should do what a lot of otherwise secular European countries do, and offer religious education. There is a distinction, he (rightly) insists, between teaching religion and teaching about religion.

Now that the religious right has triumphed over the secular left, every politician seems determined to get religion. They're all asking "What Would Jesus Do?" -- about the war in Iraq, gay marriage, poverty and Social Security. And though the ACLU may rage, it is not un-American to bring religious reasoning into our public debates. In fact, that has been happening ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold the Constitution. What is un-American is to give those debates over to televangelists of either the secular or the religious variety, to absent ourselves from the discussion by ignorance.

There are, of course, a few problems with this. I've no problem in theory with offering religion courses in public school. The problem, however, is in practice. Unless I lived somewhere, ahm, urban, preferably urban European(!), there's no way in hell I'd ever let a child of mine take such a course. Right now a teenager cannot go to his or her biology class in Georgia and Kansas and have unfettered, uncontroversial access to the accepted theories, (yes, they are 'only' theories, but such is the case with most of science, you dimwits), theories that actually engage the common wisdom of that discipline. What makes us think that in those same states, for example, we can really trust a religious studies course to engage religion in a way that enhances that discipline's discourse? On paper, it all sounds great. But, unlike in Europe, where they've had centuries to kill one another and others in the name of their faith, and are increasingly tired of doing so, the typical American teacher will almost assuredly not have the perspective to do so; moreover, the typical American (evangelical) parent will almost assuredly not have the perspective to allow them to do so.