November 5, 2009

Religious Illiteracy: We are a Nation of “Jay-Walkers”

Posted in pluralism, Religious Literacy, World Religions tagged , , at 7:33 pm by Gina Messina

world-religionWhen it comes to religious literacy, America is a nation of “Jay-walkers” (As in the segment on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno).  Although it is a secular nation, the U.S. is clearly one of the most religious countries in the world with Christianity being riddled throughout its history.  American founding documents are centered on the Bible and Christian teaching, multiple presidential speeches have quoted the Bible, our currency states “In God We Trust,” the Pledge of Allegiance calls the U.S. “one nation under God,” our judicial system requires one to give testimony after being sworn in on the Bible, and the list continues.  Regardless of the aspects of Christianity that permeate the secular boundaries of this nation, its inhabitants know little about this religion. 

American knowledge of religions other than Christianity is appalling. In 2002, the National Association of Independent Schools criticized the high level of religious illiteracy.  One would assume that U.S. citizens would have a basic understanding of the principle teachings of the major world religions, such as the Five Pillars of Islam or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism; however the majority cannot even name what the major world religions are.  The bottom line, religious literacy of citizens of the U.S. is abysmal.

In a post 9/11 world, a basic understanding of Islam is imperative. Following the terrorist attacks random acts of violence against Muslims, and those believed to be Muslim, have occurred across the U.S.  In Arizona an Indian American who was Sikh and wearing a turban was perceived to be Muslim and shot to death; an act of intolerance and ignorance.  In Dayton, Ohio a chemical irritant was sprayed into the room of a mosque that held the infants and children of its practitioners while they were engaged in a Ramadan prayer service. During the presidential campaign emails inciting hate spread around the world warning of Barack Obama’s Muslim heritage.  In addition, millions of copies of the anti-Muslim propaganda film Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West, a fear inculcating documentary, was sent around the country as a scare tactic to keep Barack Obama from being elected.  Bigotry disguised as “anti-terrorism” is utilized to instill fear and promote hate, easily succeeding in consequence of the lack of religious education in the U.S.

While the U.S. is overwhelmingly Christian, it is a pluralistic nation.  Numerous world religions are practiced within the country.  Los Angeles has more than three hundred Buddhist temples and is home to more Buddhist schools than Tokyo.  There are over 1 million practicing Hindus and yoga has become a part of everyday life in America.  Taoism is practiced around the country in martial arts studios and its influence can be seen in Star Wars where the “force” is based on the Tao.  One of only seven Baha’i temples in the world stands in Chicago, a faith with nearly 1 million practitioners in the U.S.

We are living in an age of globalization where the U.S. stands as an economic leader (as they say, when America sneezes, the world catches a cold; clearly demonstrated from our current economic crisis). That in itself requires Americans to be aware of cultures outside their own; clearly religion is culture.  Being involved in international affairs, it is crucial for our officials to be knowledgeable on religious traditions.  One must have some knowledge of Buddhism in order to understand foreign policy on Tibet; understanding the basics of Confucianism is essential in order to understand foreign policy on China. That being said, the ambassadors of Muslim majority countries do not have training in Islam.  In addition, ambassadors to India and China have no training in traditions practiced in those areas.  This is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.   

I think bringing religious education into our public school system would offer a good opportunity to address this problem of religious illiteracy.  Providing our nation’s youth with religious knowledge will give them the power to function not only in a nation that is overwhelming Christian, but that also is a religious melting pot (or salad plate which might be a better analogy) and home to multiple world traditions.   It is foolhardy for our nation to have such little knowledge and experience in religion with its role in globalization and international affairs.   Simply stated, religious illiteracy cannot continue in the U.S.  The call for religious education is not a call to teach faith, but rather a call to approach the subject matter from a phenomenological, anthropological and sociological approach, meaning to learn about the traditions from the adherent’s stand point; understanding one’s beliefs and experiences because of those beliefs; recognizing how the tradition functions in culture and affects the adherents’ lives.  Bringing religious education into public schools is the most efficient and effective approach to creating religious literacy and therefore should be a goal for the progression of this nation.

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