Monday, May 14, 2007

How Important is Religious Literacy

In response to a blog post by the Friendly Atheist, Hemant Mehta, regarding the importance of religious literacy, I picked up a copy of Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy.

Having not read the book yet, I can't offer a review, but one suggestion by Dr. Prothero may be controversial. The comments on Hemant's site represent the controversy. Dr. Prothero proposes making a class on the Bible and a class on world religions mandatory for high school students. Considering Hemant's site is for atheists and theists, it is interesting to hear the opinions of both sides. Most atheists on the site agree that there should be greater religious literacy, but express concern over how that should be done, and when. High school students, to some, are deemed too immature to deal with theology or serious religious study. I would say some people are never mature enough to deal with serious study of anything, much less religion. However, everyone has to go to high school, so everyone would be forced to go through the classes.

There is concern that, if schools are forced to teach a course on the Bible, it would be used as an opportunity to proselytize. The Texas Freedom Network looked into 20 schools in Texas who were teaching the Bible in schools, only four of which were treating the book as literature.

From taking New Testament studies courses, and other religious studies courses in college, I can say that my experience has been positive. The classes I've taken have been full of believers, most of which wanted to deepen their faith, or understanding of their own religion by critically analyzing scripture. No one expressed a concern over treating the Bible as a man made creation, written by men, over many years, with different authors, even within the same book. This more mature attitude may be a result of taking classes at Metro State University, and not the U of MN, or another school where the age of students is, on average, younger.

I don't think studying the Bible in school is bad, however, it does pose that problem of giving a teacher, if they wish, the opportunity to preach, and it may make students feel uncomfortable, if a work of scripture is criticized. Just as a Christian can push for the legitimacy of scripture, so can an atheist teacher attempt to turn students to disbelief. What is the solution then? Should we have atheist teachers teach the Bible, and Christian teachers teach philosophy, critical thinking, and the history of atheism?

The other problem arises by giving the Bible it's own course, and everything else grouped into another. While this may make sense, considering the majority of people in this country consider themselves Christian, or at least raised that way, and the Bible is so prevalent that you can't go into a hotel room without finding a copy next to the phone book. There is an attitude that Christianity is the right religion, should be studied apart from the rest of the world religions. Certainly, only one course on all major world religions is not enough. Perhaps, picking out the three major monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic god, and separating those makes sense, because the origins are similar.

Jeannette has taken religious studies courses at the U of MN. The first course she took was Jesus in History. Students in this class were upset by the treatment of Jesus as human. If the miracles were explained in less then a miraculous way, like walking on water, or whether Lazarus was in a coma, students would get upset. Students were more upset when speculation of Jesus having brothers and sisters, or if he was married to Mary Magdalene. I can imagine this being worse in high school, parents complaining about teaching, or proposing things to their child about things they may find offensive.

The second class she tool was on early Roman Christianity, which included paganism as well. What was interesting about this class, was that no one found anything offensive. Perhaps because it was a different history, distanced from the story of Jesus which made it less controversial. However, there were some students upset when the speculation came up about Romans not really believing in Christianity, but using it for political control. Also, during this class, the Gospel of Judas was published, and some students didn't like the discussion about that work, however, this wasn't really part of the class.

Kabbalah, the last religious studies course Jeannette took, appeared filled with students who wanted to be Kabbalahists, but were too skittish to go to the temple. Students in this class were too wide eyed, and interested in the religion itself, to criticize, or find offense. Some people were offended by the concept of having a union with God while having sex, but that was all that made people blush. There were mostly older people in this class, which may have something to do with the maturity of response. There was one student who wanted to find out, "what the Jews had done to the Bible." Jeannette said, taking a class with her was difficult, because the professor would mention an element of Kabbalah which appeared in the Bible, and she would deny that it was there, when it was.

Jeannette and I have been reading the Book of Mormon, and are critical of most of it. There is a lot that stands in the face of reason, and we have presented these criticisms and questions to the Mormons. What is interesting, is that they themselves haven't take the time to criticize the Book of Mormon, or reason that which seems impossible. There is a reason for this, however. In order to be a Mormon, you must believe that the Book of Mormon is true. You don't even need to read it to have God tell you it's true. Then you're free of doubt. Are American Indians really a lost tribe of Israel? Of course, the Book of Mormon says so, so it must be so. You can't disregard any of the book, can't take your highlighter out, and say, nope, this stuff is bad, cut it out. As one missionary told us, it's black and white, either its a lie, or it's the word of God. How do you tell the difference? If you pray to God to tell you whether it's true, and you have to really want to believe that it is true, and get a good feeling, then it's true.

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