Why comparative religion courses are untenable in American public schools

 A comment made by reader Matt on my post about the whitewashing of Islam in American public schools proves the point I wanted to make: teaching comparative religion in American public schools won’t work.

There are good reasons, of course, to teach comparative religion in secondary schools, the most prominent being that religion has been an important factor in human history, and without knowing something about it you’d be unable to suss out things like the Crusades, the religious wars and conflicts of the Middle Ages, the transformation of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and so on (my bias is showing since I’m mentioning only religious conflicts). Richard Dawkins always emphasizes that the Bible itself—at least the King James version—is great literature that should be read for its beauty. I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts, but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring. (Try most of the Old Testament.) But allusions to religion abound in literature (think Shakespeare, Milton, and Dostoevsky), and that’s a good reason to study scripture.

Finally, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy, ethics, or human thought in general, you’ll need to know something about religion. How, for instance, can you make sense of debates about abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research without knowing the dictates of Catholicism and other brands of Christianity?

That’s the upside. But I think it’s counterbalanced by several downsides. Which religions do we teach? It’s impossible to teach them all given that there are more than 10,000 species of belief on our planet, and you can’t teach “comparative” religion without at least a broad sampling—including the faiths of eastern Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Too, how do you teach them? You can imagine the squabbles between Sunni and Shia Muslim parents over the relative weights given to these faiths.

And what about the bad stuff that religion has inspired: the Inquisition, the Crusades, ISIS, and the doctrines of many faiths that oppress women, gays, or even unbelievers, as well as terrorize children. Do you neglect those issues, which, after all, comprise one reason to teach religion as a major force in history? How can you understand the colonization of America without understanding religious persecution? How can you teach about religious wars without mentioning the emnity produced by thinking that you, as opposed to your neighbor, have the absolute truth. And how do you deal with the Holocaust? Was that purely a cultural phenomenon?

The American solution, of course, is “fair play”: teach that all religions are not only good, but equally good, and that anything bad associated with them can be imputed not to religious beliefs but to culture. That is, you sanitize the entire endeavor to such a degree that students fail to understand religion. At best, as is done in Europe, you might learn learn a few of the milder things believed by adherents to different faiths.

But what beliefs do you present? Do you tell kids that Catholics think that unconfessed masturbation will send you to fry forever, that many Muslims believe it is right to kill apostates or infidels, and credit a woman’s testimony in court as worth only half a man’s. Of course not! That’s not the American way! You must sanitize all beliefs so they appear either good or at best neutral

To see how this would be done in schools, look no further than the whitewashing of Islam done by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), partly funded by the U.S. government. They have a “lesson page” on Islam (part of their “Global Connections” site) that covers terrorism, the roles of women, U.S. foreign policy, and so on. To see how Islam would be taught in American public schools, check out the “roles of women” page. What you’ll find is pure whitewash: the repeated contention that Islam is a woman-friendly religion, with its female adherents enjoying privileges that until recently weren’t given to Western women. There is lie after lie—or distortion after distortion—that makes us simply unable to understand why on Earth anyone would see the faith as misogynistic. The page is implicitly ideological, with the aim of showing Islam in the best possible light. Given the authoritarian-liberal bent of PBS, we know why this is the case.

Here are three bits from that page:

Let’s dispose first of the ridiculous comparison between American domestic violence and Islamic oppression of women. While some extremist Christians may beat their wives because they read it in scripture, most domestic violence in the U.S.  has nothing to do with religion.  That is not the case for Islamic “disciplining” of women (see here for evidence). Remember, too, that far more Muslims take their scripture literally than do Christians.

Most important, note that the oppressive practices of Islam are imputed to “culture”, not religion. That’s a lie, especially when you realize that in much of Islam one cannot separate culture and religion because the faith dictates all sorts of cultural practices. Is the forced veiling of women “culture”? If so, why did Iranian, Egyptian, and Afghani “culture” change so drastically in the late Seventies—changing in a way that women suddenly acquired the “cultural” habit of veiling? Was it just a coincidence that the Islamic Revolution began about then?

Reza Aslan and other apologists argue that the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is “cultural” and has nothing to do with Islam. While there’s some truth in that, Heather Hastie has shown repeatedly that Islam not only helped spread the practice, but approves of or even mandates it. Here’s a bit from one of her posts:

Most imams will admit that the Qur’an and hadiths do not require FGM, but many still teach that it should be done, especially in Sunni Islam, which accounts for 80-90% of Muslims. There are four main schools of law in Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki. The first two consider FGM obligatory and the other two recommend it.

And from another:

. . . there have been several fatwas issued regarding FGM over the years, the majority of which favour it. (Fatwas are not compulsory, but devout Muslims consider them morally imperative.) For example, Fatwa 60314 includes statements that express the importance of FGM within Islam and dismiss the opinions of doctors.

The belief that FGM is an expression of faith if you are a good Muslim is widespread, insidious and promoted by religious leaders. Even in those Muslim countries where it has been banned, there is push-back by religious leaders. In Egypt for example, FGM was finally banned after several failed attempts in 2008. However, it is still being carried out outside hospitals and the Muslim Brotherhood has a campaign to get the law overturned. Mariz Tadros reported in May last year that “the Muslim Brotherhood have offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services”.

As far as the “rights of women” enjoyed by Muslims but not Westerners, none remain. A Muslim woman can, in many places, be divorced simply by her husband saying “I divorce you” three times, and then she’s completely screwed (she has no similar ability to divorce her husband). In some places she can’t drive, in many she can’t appear in public unveiled, or without the company of a male relative. She must worship separately from men, and often is barred or discouraged from going to school or entering some professions. In Sunni Islam, a woman inherits only half as much property as her brothers (if a woman has one brother, for instance, he gets 2/3 of all the inheritance, while she takes a third). None of this is mentioned in the PBS “lesson,” and none of it is cultural. The bit above is simply a whitewash.

As is the bit below, for what the Qur’an states is not what has become practice, for practice depends also on the hadith and the sunnah. And actual practice has overriden many of the “Qur’anic” dictates below.

If we’re to teach religion, are we going to concentrate solely on what scripture says (but, of course, leaving out the bad bits, like Yahweh’s repeated genocides and the Qur’anic dictate to kill infidels)? Or are we going to include the practices brought about by religious custom?

There’s also a section on “Women political leaders” in Islam that mentions Aisha, Muhammad’s “favorite wife” who had “great political clout,” but conveniently leaves out the Muslim belief that she married the Prophet at six and was deflowered at nine—a tradition that has led to the widespread practice of child brides—who don’t, by the way, have the right to refuse a prospective husband.

Finally, there is veiling. Here’s what PBS says about that:

This is a bit more accurate than the bits above, but also flirts with the truth. Men’s “modest” dress is very different from women’s, and in many places men can dress as they do in the West while women must remain covered. Even if the veil was historically restricted to social class, that is no longer the case: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan all women are veiled, for that’s what the law says. I’m not aware of any place where upper-class Muslims are veiled more often than those of lower social class (I may of course be wrong).

What about this statement: “covering of the face was more common in the past than it is today, more so in some regions than others”? Well, if by “the past” we mean fifty years ago, I suspect the statement is wrong. Whether it was true in, say, the eighteenth century I have no idea.

As for those veiling laws, the statement “Veiling rules vary from country to country. In the modern period, strict laws about women’s dress are often used to emphasize the religious orientation of a particular government, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia” is sort of true, but the purpose is more than just “emphasizing the religious orientation of a particular government.” Nowhere is it mentioned that women are covered to prevent them from exciting the lust of men, who are seen as sexually uncontrollable creatures in the face of an uncovered ankle or a wisp of loose hair. The very purpose behind veiling—which, once in place, can then become an “exaptation” for displaying one’s faith—is simply omitted.

I’ve used Islam here to show the way comparative religions would undoubtedly be taught in America, for PBS has an educational “unit” on that faith. (There are no comparable sections on any other religion.) But the treatment of other faiths would surely resemble that of Islam. Their doctrines would be sanitized via cherry-picking only the good bits of scripture—and the oppressive customs would be imputed to “culture” rather than dogma. The students would be taught that all religions are good, and all religions are equally good. (And would they be taught atheism or humanism? Those aren’t, after all, “religions.”)

Perhaps other countries would do it differently, but I know America, and I know the American sense of “fair play” that would mandate that no religion could appear better or worse than another. That would of course require sanitizing them all. I find it preferable to not  teach “comparative religion” at all than to whitewash it in this way. It’s like teaching the history of twentieth century Europe and not saying anything bad about Germany.

h/t: Diane G.


  1. Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    I have always been impressed that the Abrahamic faiths all claim that we are made in their god’s image and the first thing they want to do is snip off a bit of penis here, a bit of clitoris there … now it is perfect!

    What all of these faiths want to do is control people because that is the source of their power. Period. What that control consists of, isn’t particularly important to the faithful’s leaders.

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    I tend to think this posting proves my earlier comment – leave it out of public school. Theology is not for kids. Too bad so many get it stuffed down their throats at such an early age.

  3. GBJames
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:00 am | Permalink


  4. Xuuths
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I have to answer the question “ask yourself if the high rate of domestic violence in the United States is related to Christianity”?


    It is because christianity is the predominant religion, and until fairly recently it wasn’t considered legally possible for a husband to rape his wife (wives were taken to have given lifetime consent). Only fairly recently parents could get away with severely beating their children based on “spare the rod, spoil the child” BS from their christian religion.

    Even now in some states parents can legall kill their children by refusing to give them life-saving medicine, all in the name of their religion.

    If the christian religion was as unequivocal about being anti-domestic violence as it is about being anti-gay, you wouldn’t be able to get away with it. Our police/prosecution system would not stand for it. Just like the police/prosecutors were anti-gay and got away with horrible abuses until fairly recently.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      Only some (most?) varieties of Xtianity are unequivocal about being anti-gay.

      Which illustrates the problem, of course. Religion is perfectly built for schisms and there’s no way to determine which variety is the authoritative version.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:43 am | Permalink

        It’s true that some varieties of Christianity are more gay-friendly (or at least less gay-averse). But it’s also true that the opposition to gay rights, and to same-sex marriage, was almost entirely religiously based (and, in the US, made primarily by conservative Christians). Sometimes these people would attempt to cast their opposition in secular terms — dealing with public health or the purported breakdown of straight marriage — but none of those arguments could withstand rational analysis, and there was never any doubt that the motivation in making them was religious.

    • Leigh
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for answering yes. I would absolutely identify religion, and in the US, because Christianity is the majority religion, Christianity as one of the major factors contributing to domestic violence. It is certainly the only factor I can see that explains the legislative violence directed at women in the US.

      I don’t think I understand the distinction people try to make between religion and culture. Religion is a subset, or an aspect, of culture. When we try to explain the violence against women found in a particular group, but want to ignore that the religion of that group identifies women as the source of all evil, or that childbearing and childbirth is seen as a punishment for causing that evil, what do we gain by factoring religion out of the analysis?

      I think the author chose a poor example. I shouted a resounding “yes” in answer to the rhetorical question. It is not ridiculous at all to see Christianity as the foundational source of violence directed at women in the US.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I agree. I also posit that a reason that religious apologists tend to state that religion and culture are two completely different things as if that were obvious and not the least bit in question is that an obvious implication of religion being an aspect of culture (which I claim it surely is) is that religions are man made. That’s a non-starter for most religions.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        I agree as well. Christianity puts men at the head of the household – he who must be obeyed. Until recently most men believed, even if they didn’t personally do it or were personally opposed to it, that men had a right to control their wives. If it required a beating to get that control, so be it. That is a direct reflection of marriage as per the Bible.

        The Qur’an has the Hadiths as its instruction manual, and thus there are instructions on how to beat your wife. I would bet that if the Bible had the same sort of instruction manual, it would include such things.

        I’m sure everyone here has heard of the bestselling Christian book about how to beat your children in a “loving” way. It’s sickening.

      • Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

        How, exactly is Christianity’s view of women responsible for DV in the US, where: incidents are perpetrated equally by men and women; in 2/3 of one-sided DV (hetero) relationships the abuser is the woman; most incidents of mutual abuse are instigated by the woman (hetero couples); the highest rate of DV is among lesbian couples, the lowest among gay male couples?

        • somer
          Posted September 7, 2017 at 6:41 am | Permalink

          I have Never heard stats like you cite – please could you provide the source

          For USA from National Coalition against domestic violence


          1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetime.1
          1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men experience severe physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime.1
          1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
          1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States has been raped in their lifetime.1
          Almost half of female (46.7%) and male (44.9%) victims of rape in the United States were raped by an acquaintance. Of these, 45.4% of female rape victims and 29% of male rape victims were raped by an intimate partner.11

          • Posted September 7, 2017 at 8:34 am | Permalink

            I can’t validate the statistics for domestic abuse given by Matt or those from the article you reference, Somer. But, I also have read that there’s more domestic abuse of males than one would have thought, and that it is under-reported for obvious reasons (I’m not in a position to hunt up my sources at the moment.) Men are strong and to be obeyed. Women are weak and to be dependent. Only a wimpy male would be abused by a female spouse and report it. Of course, this doesn’t address the issue of abuse in same sex marriages.

            Regardless of religious rules about control of family in patriarchal religions, there should be no (zero, none) abuse. In matriarchal religions, at the leadership level, a woman was in charge and the position of husband ended after a short duration with his death and replacement. I haven’t read anything indicating that this was practiced throughout the culture in all marriages.

          • Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

            Following a link from your link, it is still impossible to find the data for those statistics. But the “1 in 5” rape figure is highly contested, with the NCVS putting the figure at 1 in 17. The CDC and BJS use markedly different metrics and classifications; whose methodology is sounder is debated.

            My source is a Johns Hopkins study which I don’t have a link for at this moment. (A Leeds University study found similar rates for the UK.)

          • Posted September 7, 2017 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

            National Institute of Health study finding:

            [a]lmost 24% of all relationships had some violence, and half (49.7%) of those were reciprocally violent. In nonreciprocally violent relationships, women were the perpetrators in more than 70% of the cases.


            Overview of multiple studies showing gender symmetry in IPV:

            Martin Fiebert of CSU, Long Beach has compiled a list of over 200 studies finding that “women are as physically aggressive, or more aggressive, than men in their relationships with their spouses or male partners. “


        • Diane G.
          Posted September 8, 2017 at 12:18 am | Permalink

          “According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 95 percent of the victims of domestic violence are women. The National Crime Victimization Survey consistently finds that no matter who initiates the violence, women are 7 to 10 times more likely to be injured than are men. ”


        • Diane G.
          Posted September 8, 2017 at 12:21 am | Permalink


          Nonfatal intimate partner violence
          • Intimate partner violence includes victimization committed by spouses or exspouses,
          boyfriends or girlfriends, and ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends.
          • In 2008 females age 12 or older experienced about 552,000 nonfatal violent victimizations
          (rape/sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated or simple assault) by an intimate
          partner (a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend) (table 1).
          • In the same year, men experienced 101,000 nonfatal violent victimizations by an intimate
          • The rate of intimate partner victimizations for females was 4.3 victimizations per
          1,000 females age 12 or older. The equivalent rate of intimate partner violence
          against males was 0.8 victimizations per 1,000 males age 12 or older.

          • Posted September 9, 2017 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

            Those figures are suspect, as national estimates for 5 of the 12 categories were based on 10 or fewer cases. Summary admits, for example, that “There is no significant difference in the rate of male and female intimate partner victimization for aggravated assault. “ This survey also includes robbery, not typically classified as IPV.

            Compare to the 2010 CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Tables 4.1 & 4.2:

            Estimated total number of victims of physical IPV
            F = 6,982,000 (55%)
            M = 5,691,000 (45%)


            Of course, one may cherry-pick isolated stats out of that or any report to serve of one’s polemic.

            But the overwhelming preponderance of evidence shows that men and women perpetrate IPV of all types at roughly equal rates. Women do suffer more serious physical injuries, simply because men tend to be more physically strong. But women are believe to commit more DV precisely because it is known their assaults will cause less physical harm. That does not ameliorate the psychological harm, however. In non-physical abuse, women also are somewhat more likely to perpetrate than men. The recorded rates of IPV against men are on the rise of late, and the consensus belief is this is due to a lessening of cultural stigma which had led to significant underreporting by men.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 4:29 am | Permalink

        “It is not ridiculous at all to see Christianity as the foundational source of violence directed at women in the US.”

        I’d qualify that to just “some of the violence.” There’s a lot of domestic violence that seems in no way related. E.g., with the start of the new NFL season, there’s yet another widely ballyhooed case of domestic violence by a player making the rounds. Few of these sorts of incidents seem to have a religious component; violence toward women is not limited to the religious.

  5. Sastra
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I think that, on the whole, it’s probably better to give children a sanitized understanding of different religions than none at all. Being completely ignorant of what other religions believe isn’t going to help people cope with a diverse society or deal with other countries. My guess is that a Comparative Religions class in high or junior high schools is going to end up being watered down from the PBS bromides. Not more honest, but not so much lavish praise. The focus will be on facts, lest the pious parents get offended.

    From our perspective, the net effect of “all these religions are great!” is probably going to end up being “none of the details matter!” and, perforce, “what matters is how you behave!” That’s humanism. It fuels an increasingly secular culture.

    So I’d risk it. A less than optimal education is still valuable.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

      Which religions? If you leave out Scientology, you’re gonna get sued. This is America, and every faith will demand to be represented–positively. And will you teach Scientology’s theology about Xenu and volcanoes?

      Many parents already homeschool their kids to keep them from being exposed to other faiths. I fear that “religious education classes”, regardless of their content, will also drive more kids away from public schools.

      • JonLynnHarvey
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        Perhaps you can measure the exposure of religions on the basis of the size of their historic impact. Scientology’s impact on Western culture is relatively minor outside of the popularity of Tom Cruise.

        On the other hand, many courses on comparative religion omit Mormonism, whose impact on American culture is larger than most people realize.

        • Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          A stealthy approach would be to assign Riders of the Purple Sage.

      • Sastra
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        My guess is that any curriculum would include the major religions, and any local vocal minority would and could be given a quick mention, with their most basic beliefs outlined. The goal is education, not indoctrination. Smaller religions would especially want that.

        As for the problem of kids being removed from public schools by parents fearful of them being exposed to ‘wrong’ religions, my guess is that any group which can’t tell the difference between education and indoctrination will undoubtedly already have or soon develop twisted knickers about something else: the teaching of evolution, Harry Potter, character lessons, a gym teacher doing yoga exercises, etc. etc. Fear of setting off the irrational shouldn’t guide curriculum.

        Besides, those are different objections than mentioned in the OP, which expressed concern about religion getting a happy clappy ecumenical facelift. Which could be, but I still think it would be countered by the leveling effect.

        Way back in the 60’s, I recall my 6th grade Social Studies unit on “comparative religion.” In addition to Greek and Norse myths, Hebrew myths were also included. Pretty edgy, I now realize. But I thought nothing of it at the time.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 4:43 am | Permalink

        I tend to agree with Sasha here. If for nothing else, there’s the chance that some proportion of the brightest kids in class are going to be motivated to think about, for perhaps the first time, just what the fact that there are so many different religions, each of which thinks they and only they possess the truth, implies.

        When I was in grade school my father, a mariner, was sailing to the Middle and Far East, which motivated my Mom to buy a paperback on world religions. I remember first thinking that Hinduism sounded kinda cool–loved that many-lives idea with its assurance that you got more than one chance to get it right…but that was shortly followed by the “wait–if religion is something one can choose or not depending on personal preference, doesn’t that imply that there’s no actual truth in any of them? Short track to atheism.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 7, 2017 at 6:24 am | Permalink

          If I was forced at gunpoint to choose some religion (and philosophical Buddhism wasn’t allowed), I think I might choose Hinduism. Two reasons – first, it seems it’s kinda democratic in that no-one is authorised to speak for Hinduism as a whole, which appeals to my anarchic streak. And second, there’s a range of entertaining gods to choose from.

          And if you’re going to pretend to believe in supernatural stories they might as well be entertaining ones.


          … and then there’s those temple carvings…

        • Posted September 7, 2017 at 9:19 am | Permalink

          I agree with Sastra and Diane that comparative religions should be taught. We used to be taught at least Greek and Roman mythologies. Hebrew, Norse, Native American and other myths should be taught also so that the commonalities and differences become apparent. At the university level, I took a course on the Bible as Literature. I also took a sequence of courses on comparative religions.

          If I were teaching a course on religions, I would want to start in prehistory with early man and the worship of totems, sexual objects, ancestors, mountains, sky, weather, etc. And proceed on to humans creating gods/goddesses in his/her own images. And, the progression from worshiping numerous gods/goddesses each with different characteristics and responsibilities to the concept of one god. I would reference matriarchal religions that preceded patriarchal ones. I would talk about religions of the Celts, Germans, Middle Easterners, Orientals, etc., not just Europeans or Mediterraneans. How they were similar. How they were different. If I could, I’d try to give a sense of how all religions change over time to meet cultural needs of each specific group and through interactions with other peoples. And, obviously, secularists, agnostics and atheists
          should be included. If one had time, certain of the philosophers who had major impacts on religious thought should be covered. I don’t know about covering changes in the concept of
          we die and go in the ground (Hades, Sheol)vs. a “soul” and different notions of what happens to it after death. Or judgments. Or reincarnation.

          I also wish there were time to talk about the
          books associated with certain of the religions and how they started off as oral “history” and were later written down and modified over time. The “books” that were included and those left out. The obvious additions, deletions and mistakes made by the clerics. Subsequent rules and explanations made by priests and scholars.

          One can’t really understand history or literature without awareness of religions. Shakespeare. Milton. Dante, etc.

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 8, 2017 at 1:20 am | Permalink

            In an ideal world, that would be perfect!

            Sadly, I don’t see the US coming anywhere close to ideal in, oh, forever…

            Still I think good teachers could come up with age-appropriate curricula that walk the line between inciting religious revolt and being so non-judgmental that it’s all just a waste of time. Or worse, that plant incorrect ideas that may never be challenged.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      My wife and disagree about this.

      All religions are aesthetically repellant. Why would I want to teach them about some uninteresting god?

      • Sastra
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        A lot of political, social, and literary ideas are based on what different people have believed. If a young adult doesn’t get the references, they’re not going to be able to understand or counter the issues very well.

        Besides, the more people realize how many religions there are, the less true any of them seem.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      I tend to agree with Sastra. I think it would go back to basic facts rather than a white-washing. I think kids need to know about religion, and the more they know the more likely they are to abandon it.

      The only exposure a lot of kids get to a religious education is the extremely partisan one they get from their own place of worship. A lot would learn a few things about their own religion they’re never going to hear there. That’s good I think.

      I also have faith (is that the right word?) that most teachers would get this right.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        I agree with Heather and Sastra on that.

        Besides, the kids will have seen numerous references or allusions to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Norse, Hindu and Buddhist deities, beliefs or customs on movies or TV series. (And, obviously, Islam and Xtianity). An outline of the basic beliefs of each religion would only take a few minutes and would be quite interesting and informative.

        It needn’t (in the limited time available) stray into contentious issues like who did what to who. And I don’t think it would tend to increase religiosity. U.S. kids get swamped with Xtianity everywhere (I can’t help noticing the huge number of ‘Muricans on the news who ‘thank God’ every time a disaster fails to kill them, and they appear to really mean it). I think a course that lists many religions’ beliefs would just tend to show that Xtianity is just another one, nothing special.


      • Diane G.
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 4:49 am | Permalink

        “I also have faith (is that the right word?) that most teachers would get this right.”

        Sadly, this is where I would worry the most. We don’t compensate teachers well enough to ensure they’re all as intelligent as we’d like to believe they are. I can’t think of a more important profession and yet we come nowhere near valuing it in proportion to its influence on each new generation…

        (I hasten to add that I’ve also known several fantastic teachers, the kind that really do change lives.)

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:56 am | Permalink

          There are some countries now – I think Finland is one – that pay their teachers extremely well and require them to have doctorates. They want to make teaching a top profession because of its importance. Our government is trying to move that way with a constant increase in both salaries and education requirements of teachers. We’re ahead of the US in that regard, but have a way to go.

          In fact the US has been slipping back for some time because not enough is invested in teachers or education. They’re now one of the worst in the OECD. Top students are still amongst the best in the world, but there’s a long tail. De Vos, of course, has plans that will make it worse.

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 8, 2017 at 12:48 am | Permalink

            I should have indicated that by “we” I was speaking solely of the US.

            Yep, education needs Betsy like Houston needs rain.

  6. Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts [that are great literature], but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring.

    I don’t agree that what people have labelled great literature is by definition not boring. Some people have called The Lord of the Rings great literature, but there are bits in it that are so boring that I almost decided to gnaw my own arm off as light relief.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      I apologise. My insertion in square brackets appears to put words into your mouth. Please ignore them.

      • Kevin
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        The Hobbit is even more boring. I loved the movies though.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          If you think The Hobbit is boring, don’t even go near The Silmarillion, or any of the other potboilers that Christopher Tolkien has cobbled together in order to keep the royalties flowing in.

          • Phil Giordana FCD
            Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

            I’ll have you know The Silmarillion is my bible!


        • Posted September 8, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Actually, I found the Hobbit a much more tractable text. The only problem I had with it was the number of times the protagonists found themselves without any food and having to “tighten their belts”.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      Tolkien’s publisher wanted to edit that book down to a shorter length, as happened both with Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” and Stephen King’s “The Stand”.

      However, the wartime economy was so bad, that they simply couldn’t afford to hire an editor, so the the relatively unwieldy longer version is what got published.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

        I’m glad things turned out that way. I’ll be the first to admit that some parts of the LOTR and related books are boring but given the final entire product I am more than okay with that.

        Heck, I haven’t read any of that stuff in decades and wouldn’t be surprised to find that it just isn’t to my tastes at this point in my life if I tried to reread it. But I still wouldn’t want it to have been edited down to a shorter length.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 4:56 am | Permalink

      “I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts, but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring.”

      I couldn’t agree more with Jerry. And I also think that it’s quite easy to become familiar with most of the popular biblical references from the references themselves. Not to mention all the art, cartoons, journalism, debates, movies, etc., etc., that stem from or refer to biblical texts.

      • Posted September 8, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        I do agree that large parts of the Bible are stupefyingly boring. I do not agree that that means that it is not (or at leasts parts of it are not) great literature.

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 8, 2017 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

          Well, you’re in good company–Dawkins.

          But then, so am I–Jerry. 😀

          • Posted September 9, 2017 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

            Your position is not tenable though. Great works of literature do exist that are stupefyingly boring. My brother would cite “Far from the Madding Crowd”. Class £SCo of Ashlyns School 1979 would cite “The Riddle of the Sands”.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted September 9, 2017 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

              I read ‘The Riddle of the Sands’. It did have some suspense and a coherent plot, and a mystery, even if a bit long-winded.

              And I like Hardy. Can’t remember ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ but he had a talent for creating characters and a marvellous sense of countryside.

              Obviously I didn’t find either ‘stupefyingly boring’. Of course I didn’t have to read either as a school assignment, which may have made a difference.

              I’ll stick with my original thesis. That, considered by any standard you like to name, so little of the Bible is actually readable, and so much stupefyingly boring, that it can’t be called ‘great literature’ and in fact nobody would read the whole thing, start to finish, just for pleasure.

              Would anyone ever read ‘Lord of the Rings’ if Tolkien had repeated the same plot two or four times over with incompatible changes?

              If you want to claim that there’s a special category of ‘literature’ that applies to works of great cultural significance irrespective of (absence of) ‘literary merit’ then I won’t argue that point.


  7. Brian Jung
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    While I agree with your assessment of many of the problems of teaching comparative religions in schools, I’m a bit baffled by the solution to “just not do it.”

    When arguing for free speech you often argue that more speech and better speech will shine a light on bad ideas. Why doesn’t that hold true here?

    Certainly whitewashing is going to be a problem and it ought to be addressed. We need brave teachers and brave scholars to find a way to present the truth. Not easy. But without education far more dangerous ideas become prevalent: kids, for example, can learn from their peers (and from “authorities” like their country’s president) that all Muslims are terrorists.

    Even with the danger of whitewashing, I can’t imagine that NOT talking about religion in our classrooms is somehow better than talking about it.

    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      Re your second paragraph: the principle of free speech will not apply to these classrooms, at least insofar as teaching is concerned. There will be no badmouthing of religion allowed. If that happened, they wouldn’t have the classes. Ergo everything will be presented as sweetness and light.

      Don’t get me wrong: I think comparative religion can be taught decently in public schools. Just not in America. And that’s why it’s done so infrequently. How many American readers here had a section on comparative religion in a public secondary school?

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

        Trying to teach comparative religion to American high-school students makes for a fraught enterprise, I agree. But I don’t think we should abandon the project so readily. It’s crucial, I think, that our fellow citizens have some basal understanding of the world’s religions, as a matter of both civic responsibility and cultural literacy (and, hell, of literacy itself, since religious symbolism and allegory and metaphor and allusion is ubiquitous in the western literary canon).

        And if those citizens don’t get it in secondary school, then where? (Such information would be best transmitted in college comparative religion courses, of course, but not all our fellow citizens attend university and, of those that do, not all will be inclined to take an elective in comparative religion. They need such understanding, too.)

      • Sastra
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Iirc, I had sections involving “comparative religion ” in 6th grade, in Junior High, and various classes in High School. This was in the 60’s/70’s, Chicago area (Northbrook and Evanston.) It was a fairly liberal area, with a high proportion of Jewish students. Maybe that’s what made the difference. I don’t know.

        • Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

          “How many American readers here had a section on comparative religion in a public secondary school?”

          I did and my father taught it (it was hard sometimes being a student in my father’s class). But I don’t think it’s quite what you’re asking. It wasn’t about religion itself, it was about the history of religious influence on society. He did focus on select Western societies – which meant Christianity- and the religions of antiquity (though we did a section on the pagans) but he also included Islam’s role in North Africa, Hinduism’s role in ancient and modern India and some on Buddhists in Asia. Very little about animists in Africa.

          As I said, it wasn’t about the religions per se, but rather their role in shaping history and society. So probably NOT what you’re looking for.

          • Diane G.
            Posted September 7, 2017 at 5:02 am | Permalink

            No, actually I think that sort of approach might accomplish a lot. As I mentioned previously, just driving home the fact that so many different religions each believe that only their version of the truth is true, that over the course of history allegiance to such beliefs has had such dire consequences and affected the course of history can’t help but let the kids know just how arbitrary (where were you born?) and divisive religion really is.

        • Posted September 6, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

          Sorry Sastra. I meant to respond to Dr Coyne

  8. Historian
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    As discussed in the post, some sort of discussion of religion is necessary to understand the history for almost every country. The way I was taught the role of religion in many different history classes was to have it discussed in a matter-of-fact way without editorial comment as to the truthfulness or worthiness of any particular religion. For example, you can hardly talk about the Protestant Reformation without going into its religious base. Thus, I learned that Luther was vexed that the Catholic Church sold indulgences. No teacher ever commented that because of this Catholicism was “bad.” In my day, at least, I don’t recall any student getting upset by this. Of course, American history cannot be understood without understanding the role of many different religions in its development. The trick is to remain objective and detached when discussing religion. If students or parents try to argue that one religion is better than another, they must be told that such debates are not proper for a history class.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      Do they still teach history in public schools?


      • CJColucci
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        They didn’t in my day because there hadn’t been enough of it yet.

        • Randy schenck
          Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

          That’s funny. They had American History in High School when I was going, probably around 10 or 11th grade. Maybe some general world history in 6th grade. I do not recall getting any religion in public school. When was this? – 1955 to 1968. I do not have any problem with understanding American History and I have been an atheist all my life. Knowing the impact, regarding religion, as you learn American History was not that difficult. Why anyone would think you need formal classes in theology to know American history seems very strange to me.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

            When I think of teaching religion, I don’t think of formal classes in theology. I think of it as Historian explained it – teaching the facts without editorializing.

            I remember a module about religious writing in 6th form (year 12) English. Two girls who were devout Salvation Army were given marks of 51%, just saving them from failure, basically because they’d done such huge projects. However, they wrote all about the truth of The Word etc. Those of us who were more objective did much better.

            • Randy schenck
              Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

              Yes, I understand and possibly that is all the Historian is doing. But many are discussing pretty involved, detailed study of religion, all religions that sounds more like theology class to me than American history. Also, it is true in other history classes, such as world history you have to get into religion more because that was the way things were hundreds of years ago. Religious classes in American public school is a very bad idea and I think the post here goes along way toward explaining why that is.

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

                I think if it went the way Jerry is describing, it would be bad. As an outsider I can’t really judge if that’s what would happen. Most of my religious study was as part of a history degree, so it was a whole different environment anyway. It was as Historian describes it and as Sastra thinks it would be. I can imagine that there are parts of the US where the objective study of religion would be impossible though. There are also plenty who are prepared to spend a lot of money dragging a case through the courts, which is a situation that doesn’t happen in most countries either.

    • Draken
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Even remaining neutral can be a minefield in religulous America. You would think, for example, that Xenu and the Body Thetans form the basis of Scientology, and thus should be explained, right?

      Except that Scientology officially holds that this is secret material not to be taught until you’ve paid your way to OT III or so.

      (Of course, this cat has long been out of the bag, but would you risk Miscavige’s lawyers on your arse?)

  9. J.Baldwin
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    There’s been a lot of ink spilled over the rise of “fake news” on the internet, and rightly so. Too often under-reported, however, is the unfortunate loss of formerly credible sites, the ranks of which PBS is joining (at least on this issue but I suspect on other culture war topics, too).

  10. Rita
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    I agree the Bible is “stupefyingly boring”, and I’m sure most other religious texts probably are too. I’ve always maintained that all those Christians who say they read their bibles are lying about it, because it is so boring. But then I thought, if religions courses in schools would require reading boring passages of religious texts, maybe it would have the effect of inoculating the kids!

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      It certainly inoculated me!

      (Sunday School, in case you’re wondering).

      We also had a weekly Religious Instruction class (this was in an English ‘Grammar School’ – that is, a state school) about which I can remember almost nothing. The teacher who took it – I think it was the biology teacher! – had probably drawn the short straw and was as bored as we were.


  11. Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    There is a way to teach comparative religion, but not necessarily by delving into the canon, dogma and pseudo histories of each one. Rather, the course would begin with a comprehensive study of how the human mind developed misbeliefs, superstitions and myths by adapting primitive cognitive mechanisms such as H.A.A.D, pareidolia, ethnic traditions, mnemohistory, and what Spengler called pseudo historic metamorphoses. Of course, such a curriculum would present many challenges, but to continue our present practice of dilution and denial will only lead to further dominance of fundamentalism, extremism and religious dominionism.

    • Kevin
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

      This type of comparative religion works in a secular environment, but I doubt the faithful would approve. Furthermore, comparative religion will always come with admonishment and criticism which is a scary prospect for a parent of brainwashed teenager.

      • Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:54 am | Permalink

        Oh, no doubt it would be fraught with challenges from the religious-minded, but while we still have separation of church and state we have to try to bring some sanity into the public school systems. One of the greatest threats we face today is from the dubiously accredited parochial elementary, secondary, high school, colleges and even post-graduate studies that award Ph.D.’s to geologists, mechanical engineers and even a few astrophysicists who actually believe and argue Intelligent Design and Young World creationism. The U.K. has banned Intelligent Design and Creationism from its public school systems and we would do well to implement the same restrictions on a federal level.

  12. CJColucci
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I have no doubt that most of our public schools, especially in the South and rural areas, would implement a religion course in bad faith — if you’ll pardon the expression — and otherwise make a hash of it. But it really isn’t all that hard to do right. Which religions? Mostly the big “world religions” — Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, with Judaism, despite its small number of world-wide adherents, because of its relationship to Christianity. Why? Because size and influence matter. A few units on some of the other religions could round it out. I have taken courses on other religions, including Islam, and have never seen “whitewashing,” or even the level of theological detail that would be necessary to do it. You teach the major beliefs and point out the major intramural disputes. How to treat women, for example, is a disputed issue in Islam, and it isn’t whitewashing to point out that, at the time of Islam’s founding, its doctrines regarding women were generally an improvement over those of predecessor religions in the area. Why it has lagged behind the Judeo-Christian world might make an intersting term paper topic, but at an introductory classroom lecture level the question can only be introduced, not answered. When you teach Christianity, you go over the major differences between the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions, why the three branches split off, and what the continuing disputes are.
    If it has been done, it can be done. And it has.

    • abear
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      “How to treat women, for example, is a disputed issue in Islam, and it isn’t whitewashing to point out that, at the time of Islam’s founding, its doctrines regarding women were generally an improvement over those of predecessor religions in the area.”

      You sure that isn’t whitewashing you are repeating from an apologist? Are you aware that according to the quran and hadiths that before Mo invented islam he worked for a wealthy widow that owned a prosperous business, that she proposed to him? That veiling wasn’t a custom in Arabia? That Aisha’s father was reluctant to marry off his daughter at such a young age?
      The “fact” that islam improved the lot of women at the time is more than a little dubious and that so many people uncritically accept this bit of apologetics shows the danger of teaching comparative religion without appropriate rigor.

      • CJColucci
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        You sure that isn’t whitewashing you are repeating from an apologist?

        Yes, I am sure. I first learned it from a non-Muslim scholar of impeccable reputation.

        • abear
          Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

          Are you denying that Mo’s wife Khadija was a wealthy business owner before islam? Obviously she was allowed to own property.
          The quran and hadiths both document that the covering rule did not exist in pre-islam Arabia. See kirbmarc comment #17 for an accurate description of women’s rights in islam.
          btw, Who is the scholar of impeccable reputation you learned this from? Karen Armstrong?

  13. Posted September 6, 2017 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Religion is no doubt important in understanding history and society, and perhaps literature. It can be included in history, social studies, and English courses as appropriate. No need for a dedicated course.

  14. µ
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I took two courses covering comparative religion as an undergrad psych major:
    Social Psychology and Abnormal Psychology.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 5:07 am | Permalink


  15. Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The PBS program sounds a lot like the former “Moral and Religious Education” courses (or rather their unit on religions) taught in the 1990s when I was in high school in Quebec. This was at the time nominally done in the “Protestant” schoolboard, which basically was such only legally/constitutionally.

    I am not sure it did too much either way on anything. I don’t recall any serious discussion of religious conflict, non-belief, or even religious history. The latter *was* addressed, but it involved reading a retelling of old testament bible stories, as a common ground for the three “Abrahamic” faiths – but not any critical discussion of their origins, their truth value (either way), etc. Later some of us (my section included) read Luke and Acts, *presented as history*.

    To be fair, this is also the approach in Perry’s Western Civilization text (or at least was when I went to CEGEP a few years on). Most of us on this site know how crazy wrong that is. Even at the time, mainstream liberal scholarship knew perfectly well to present it “as what happened” is not correct.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    My public high school had a terrific Religion in Literature class which read everything from Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (excerpts) to Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Last Temptation of Christ”.
    Obviously, we got away with a lot of controversial stuff due to my public high school being 3/4ths Jewish, many of the remainder being Quakers, and hardly any evangelical Christians.

    Obviously, this was more eclectic than a comparative religion course.
    Optional reading was Huston Smith’s “The Religions of Man” which does actually whitewash religion, though not quite as disingenuously as Reza Aslan.

    You should be able to safely talk about the perfidies of religion that are in the past and which at least some religionists have owned up to. Relatively few Catholics defend the Inquisition these days (though there are a few that do.) You might be able to talk about the perfidies of religion confined to particular sects.

    Re- the bible.
    I found Leviticus boring, but not at all the books of Samuel & Kings or Genesis or the Gospels.
    The text used in the above mentioned class was “The Reader’s Bible, A Narrative: Selections from the King James Version” by Roland Mushat Frye.
    If you want to appreciate the Bible as literature, an anthology of excerpts like Frye’s is the way to go.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 5:11 am | Permalink

      I’d think “Religion in Literature” would be a great way to get kids to thinking about just what it means to belong/ be born into a particular religion without overtly having to address that topic.

      For that matter, we could proceed to “Religion in War.”

  17. kirbmarc
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    All the sentences in the “More right than you think” paragraph are either false or downright misleading.

    Women didn’t retain their assets in islam, their families retained their assets (their husbands couldn’t dispose of them, but neither could the women, at least not without the consent of a male relative of theirs).

    Muslim women could divorce if their husband married another woman, but muslim men could also divorce and marry another woman, leaving their previous wife behind with no assets. In practice this meant that only rich women divorced from their men.

    Also the bit about “keeping their last name” is downright ridiculous. There was no such thing as a “last name” in islam until the 19th-20th century. People were known for their laqab, or descriptions, and their nasab, or patronimic.

    Even today family names are clan designations, which like family property were kept within their clan, not part of a personal identity.

    There’s no such thing as the western idea of “keeping my surname to signal my independence”.

  18. Paul S
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    A comparative religion class or any class about religion has no place in a public school. Comparative religion class gives the impression religious doctrines are a topic worthy of study and debate, they’re not.
    Why people believe in religion is worthy of study, but that’s a topic for a sociology or psychology class. Possibly, you could include religious texts in a comparative literature class but what would you compare it to, it’s not Shakespeare.

    Since it’s impossible to give all religions fair and equal time, none should be allowed. Exclusion of any religion creates the impression that the ones talked about have merit.

    If you want kids to understand religion, assign a class project to have them create their own with the hierarchical structure every religion employs, deity, intermediary, scribe, translator, follower. That should not only explain everything they need to know about religion, but generate skepticism. The down side is that you may create a few more L Ron Hubbards.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      As I noted in a reply to JAC above, it’s not an issue of credibility- it’s an issue of degree of impact and influence on civilization both in terms of art and codification of law.

  19. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    I had to read this sentence several times because I thought I misread:
    “How, for instance, can you make sense of debates about abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research without knowing the dictates of Catholicism and other brands of Christianity?”
    Why would we need to know any of the dictates of Christianity to make sense of the debates around these topics? I understand the point you’re trying to make but one could argue less understanding about those mythologies could be a positive boon since one might be less likely to be sympathetic to their viewpoint: “Let me get this straight: you’re concerned more about what your unevidenced mythical being thinks than the life of the mother who’s actually carrying the child? That’s preposterous! What’s wrong with you?!”

  20. Randy schenck
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    The majority of church going Christians in America believe that this country was founded on Christianity. I have had arguments with many of these people and the facts are usually that they are simply so weak in the history of the country they have let their religious “teachers” feed them this crap, hook, line and sinker. So the idea that you need to know theology to the extent that you need courses in it to understand American history is simply wrong.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      You are confusing two incommensurate situations. Actually, some knowledge of religion helps one understand the origins of their false propaganda. The notion that America was founded as a Christian nation seems to have taken root in the 1930s and is closely linked with the emergence of the view that a Christian must subscribe to free market principles (believed by no one in Europe or by any Amercans in the 19th century). But I think that to understand how that occurred does indeed require a bit of understanding of religious doctrines.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Possibly you misunderstand what I am saying. Many Christians actually believe that this American government/country was established and based on Christian/Protestant religion. This is in fact contrary to the founding of our form of government in reality, in history. Much effort went into removing or separating any hint of religion in this creation. I can only conclude that these people are obtaining this false believe from their churches or know very little of the actual history itself. Therefore, if any additional education is needed in our public schools it is a lot more teaching and understanding of history, not religion.

        And just as an example, I assume many have read an amount of history on our founders. I have read a few regarding George Washington and in all that I have read on this person, I have noted very little regarding his religion or religion in general. I ask for a reference to g*d anywhere in the Constitution but I do not receive it.

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

          I may have misunderstood you.
          But my point is that while belief in a particular theology may bias one towards a historically false belief, understanding an outside party’s source of bias may help one understand how that outside party comes to their conclusions.

          (An outside example: Understanding the importance of reverence for the ancestors in Chinese religion helps explain why although many Eastern Europeans anglicize their family name [Gershowitz to Gershwin for the author of “I’ve Got Rhythm”], Chinese immigrants will never ever anglicize their family name, though they may adopt Western individual names. This would be sacrilege to them.)

          The Founding Fathers range from overt skeptics (like the two Thomases, Paine and Jefferson) to relatively conventional believers (the two Johns, Adams and Jay), to ambiguous in-betweeners such as Washington and Franklin.

          John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli which overtly states that the United States is NOT founded on the Christian religion.

          Ben Franklin seems to have entertained belief in a genuinely Providential God that answers prayer, but not the Christian one. This belief is sometimes labeled “theistic rationalism”.

          Washington was very active in the Masons, a largely freethinking body which nonetheless requires belief in a Supreme Being. His exact beliefs have been characterized as “studied ambiguity”. He attended an Anglican Church but refused to take Communion.
          At any rate, GW was fairly undisclosing, and this may have been a deliberate decision he regarded as being appropriate for such a revered figure-head.

          • Randy schenck
            Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

            The precise detail of believe by any individual founder is not really important to the argument here is it. The exact feelings on religion or what religion that Adams may have been or Hamilton is just individual detail. What is important is the specific type of government that they created back in 1787 that we refer to as the Constitution and the enlightened culture that surrounds this government. What you are doing is spinning like the media enjoys doing with reports.

            • JonLynnHarvey
              Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:32 am | Permalink

              Well, YOU were the one who brought up the subject of George Washington’s religion. Christopher Hitchens has brought up the details of both Washington’s and Jefferson’s specific beliefs in multiple debates with Christians, discussing the latter at length in his book on Jefferson entitled “Jefferson: Author of America”. These influenced the formation of the Constiturion.

              Jefferson and Madison were key in making sure that the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom never appealed to Jesus or God (narrowly averted), and this was a pivotal influence on the following year’s Constitutional Convention.

              Furthermore, evangelical literature has a lot of pseudo-history on the real beliefs of the Founding Fathers or which the most flagrant is “Jefferson Lies” by David Barton. This is a smaller battle than that against creationism, but it is a real one.

              Dozens of good books that rhetorically attack the evangelical “Christian nation” trope/meme include in their rebuttal argument detailed analyses of the the individual beliefs of the Founding Fathers in order to establish the underlying thinking and discussion process behind the omission of God from the Constitution.

              My central point earlier was the wide diversity of religious belief among Founding Fathers, and Washington’s strong inclination to withhold his beliefs from the public.

              • Randy schenck
                Posted September 7, 2017 at 7:28 am | Permalink

                You can pick around the edges of dozens of individual beliefs but as I said, it has nothing to do with my argument. Go back to what I said in the beginning – that religious folks in this country think regarding the creation of this country’s government. They actually think it was a vision from g*d or created on Christianity. That belief is garbage and anyone who knows much about our history also knows that. Now go back to the ideas behind this posting. Religion in the public schools. It is nonsense and against our constitution. So keep dancing around with your comments on various people which all of us already know because it has nothing to do with the basic discussion here.

                The Constitution is a religion free document and only says there will be no religious test for office. For those who do not know what that means, look it up. Later in the first Amendment, to make the Anti-federalist feel better, freedom from govt. interference in religion. But that is a two way street and also means, religion will not step into the business of government. These ideas were specific and contrary to nearly every other country in the world.

              • JonLynnHarvey
                Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:52 am | Permalink

                But when you teach multiple religions, you are not favoring any particular religion, and while generally at most one can be entirely true, but the classroom would not dictate that choice of which one is.

                A course on religion taught from a specifically Roman Catholic point of view stating what the Pope thinks about each of these religions is a violation of the first amendment.
                To teach about religion while favoring none is not.

                The question remains if you devote a whole course just to religion or you confine it to teaching about the religious background of Hawthorne and Melville in English class or the Quaker beliefs of the founders of Pennsylvania in history class, and the influence of Christianity on law is ethics class.

  21. Joseph McClain
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I attended a small, very rural denominational college. It had one course that was required of every student. I believe it was called Judeo-Christian Heritage and it was one of the most valuable courses I’ve ever taken. It basically was reading and discussing the Bible, but not from a religious point of view. In the first week, we all came up with questions like “Where did Cain get his wife?” but the professors showed us that taking the Bible as gospel would lead to crazy stuff. And yes, much of it was boring, but at the end I was not only able to read literature better (“Call me Ishmael.” OK!) but also to think critically about everything I’ve read since.

    • Randy schenck
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      But you are talking College. The post here is about public elementary school. Also seems to be a private college as well.

  22. Leigh
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I think discussions of religion definitely belong in K-12 public school for all the reasons you listed. I don’t think there should be stand-alone classes in comparative religion any more than I think there should be stand-alone bible studies classes; I think there are far too many K-12 elective courses as it is. I would not exclude religion from elementary and middle school social studies programs. I can’t see how high school history and government can be taught without discussing religion. I do not agree that the bible is great literature, but it would be foolish to ignore its influence on western art, music and literature.

    We would not argue to remove teaching about evolution from biology classes because we have to whitewash it or water it down due to religious pressure. We wouldn’t throw up our hands and say it is untenable? Why do that with religion.

    I think it is important that we fight for objective, rational K-12 education about religion untainted by the special pleadings of apologists and the outright lies of the fundamentalists.

    • Paul S
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Disagree. I don’t want religion in any form in public schools. It is completely unnecessary. The fact that people used to, or still do, believe some really stupid shit is no reason to bring it into the classroom unless you’re going to talk about all the other things people believed that turned out to be wrong.
      To bring religion into the classroom elevates it to a status it does not deserve.

      • GBJames
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        I think you conflate two different things: teaching religion vs. teaching about religion. The former has no place in public schools for the reasons you give, and others. The latter, however, is necessary if students are to be exposed in any meaningful way to human history or current events.

        You can’t learn anything about, for example, the history of Europe if you ignore the role of religious conflict. And any class in world events that failed to discuss Islamist-driven conflict would not be a class worth taking.

        • Paul S
          Posted September 6, 2017 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

          I’d like to disagree, but I’m not sure I can. I would prefer if we could include the roles religion has played in world events without legitimizing their views.
          If I may be snarky for a minute, according to the regressive left, religion plays no role in Islamist-driven conflicts.
          Back on topic, I think psychology rather than theology is what’s required to discuss terrorism or any religious belief.
          What religious people have read or been told is less important than why they believe it.

          • GBJames
            Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

            Of course you can’t! 😉

            It is the difference between what you get here at WEIT and what you get if you go to Catholic Online (if you can stomach a visit). There is lots of discussion here on WEIT about religion. But if you want some indoctrination you need to head over to where they teach religion.

        • Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

          With religion, one person’s ‘objective’ is another’s ‘biased.’ I don’t see any way that comparative religions can be taught in public K-12 schools without succumbing to bias of some kind — either built into the curriculum as with ‘Access Islam’, or injected by the teachers.

          At university, fine.

          • Randy schenck
            Posted September 6, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

            Yes, and I’ll just jump in here again and say it is nice that a few atheists here seem to agree that religious training does not belong in our Public Schools. Honestly, I thought this a given here but obviously I was wrong on this. One only needs a peripheral understanding of religion to get into subjects such as American history. Believe it or not we do receive much of our education outside of the school room and that includes basic information on religion. The tax payers did not sign up for religious education in the public schools and that is why we have so much home schooling and religious schooling and private schooling. This is also why we have the FFRF and they are busy as hell.

            • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

              I agree completely with everything except the part about FFRF. I remain disappointed in their acceptance of a dedicated prayer room on public school property operating during class time and promoted by school staff, a clear violation of McCollum.

              • Randy schenck
                Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

                Well, I do not agree with that either, it is a very bad idea and is also not consistent with the values of FFRF. Maybe they got to this by the fact that maybe “all” religions can use the room but it is still wrong. Some of the struggle has been downgraded with this agreement to let all have their space or place and I just don’t buy it. Religion is religion and it does not belong on the court house lawn or the school.

              • GBJames
                Posted September 7, 2017 at 7:19 am | Permalink

                The thing it, Randy, that the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion. In schools that translates to the right for students to non-disruptively pray in student-organized groups. It can’t be sponsored by the school because schools are part of government.

                People have a right to pray on the court house lawn, offensive as that might be to you or me.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted September 7, 2017 at 7:41 am | Permalink

                There’s also a practical matter of picking ones battles. Given that the prayers are student-organised and that no-one else is disadvantaged, the legal issues may not be entirely clear-cut. Also, it’s hard to muster much public indignation at this. Courts have sometimes been known to find ways to interpret the law so as to arrive at the sensible or popular conclusion, but – since the prayers do not appear to be imposing on any other group – that would probably not happen in this case.

                So overall, it seems quite likely the FFRF – if they took court action – might not win this one, and bringing an action and losing would be worse than doing nothing.


              • Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

                Students are free to assemble to pray on school property, but only outside of class time. Student religious groups are given equal access to school facilities, but again only outside of class time.

                The prayer room in question was:
                1) Expressly opened to accommodate one particular faith;
                2) Operated during class time;
                3) Was actively promoted by school staff.

                All three are egregious church:state violations.


                FFRF may well chose which court battles to fight, but they issued a position paper and blog posts in support of this prayer room. On FFRF’s Patheos blog, I asked Laurie Anne Gaylor directly about the relation of this case to McCollum v. Board of Education (1948), which FFRF had cited in the past to oppose accommodations for school prayer. I received no response.

  23. Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    FYI, from those class materials, the quiz on women’s status in Islam:


  24. Posted September 6, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Aisha … married the Prophet at six and was deflowered at nine….

    “Deflowered” is a nice way to say “raped”.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 5:17 am | Permalink


  25. Gabrielle
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Back in my public high school 40 years ago (small city in south-eastern Pennsylvania), we had an elective course called the Bible as Literature. I seem to recall that we covered parts of Genesis, some Psalms, the Book of Ruth, the Song of Songs, and possibly others. I don’t recall discussing anything from the New Testament. The focus was on the story lines and on the written word, not on whether the story lines were true or happened as written. A rather easy course, as I recall.
    The only other religious subject that I remember being discussed at all in history classes was on the culture of the Amish and Mennonites, all due to people in that part of Pennsylvania being proud of their PA Dutch heritage. Needless to say, people in my school were (are?) enamored of these two religious groups, and their ways of life are viewed positively, though there was little actual discussion of their religious views. Mostly, it all was an excuse to eat PA Dutch foods.

  26. eric
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Jerry I don’t think any of your objections are insurmountable. To see how/why, I’m going to compare comparative religion to history.

    Which religions do we teach? It’s impossible to teach them all

    You could say the same thing about history; it’s impossible to teach it all. The way we address this issue is having elected officials, subject matter experts, and the public weigh in on what they think is the most important bits to teach. Then we teach that. Sure, ‘most important’ is subjective. But that doesn’t prevent us from making a decision.

    Too, how do you teach them? You can imagine the squabbles between Sunni and Shia Muslim parents

    You went to W&M, where the civil war is taught as the War of Northern Aggression (or used to be). And numerous states struggle with how much emphasis to put on US slavery vs. other parts of 18th-19th century history.
    So ‘how to present it’ is also an issue history courses currently deal with. And again, we do this by collectively developing standards, ensuring in our pluralistic and democratic society that the curriculum is developed by subject matter experts, elected officials, and the public. No it’s not perfect, but again its doable for comparative religion just as it’s already done for history.

    And what about the bad stuff that religion has inspired.

    You’ve brought up the example itself: how do you deal with the Holocaust in a history class? How much time in a European history course should that get, given all the other things Germans or other Europeans may have done? How much time do the good things vs the bad things get in a course that is supposed to cover modern European history in a year? That’s a legitimately tough question, on which reasonable people may disagree. But again, as with the questions above, we resolve it at least somewhat adequately through the process of curriculum development, trying to balance all the competing interests of public desire, (different and differing) expert advice, and officials trying to do the best for their state.

    …and so on with your other questions. Will we be able to develop a comparative religion curriculum everyone will be happy with? No. How about just everyone in a given state, since curriculum is a state concern? No, not even that. But then again, people constantly complain about the curriculum for science, for history, for math. Heck there’s probably not a high school core course in any district in the entire US that doesn’t have someone complaining about it to their state representative. Fortunately, we have never needed consensus to decide what to teach. We just need a reasonable and transparent methodology for curriculum development, and reasons behind our choices that pass court muster. And that is as achievable with comparative religion as it is with biology or any other subject.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      You make sense to me, eric.

  27. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    “Richard Dawkins always emphasizes that the Bible itself—at least the King James version—is great literature that should be read for its beauty. I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts, but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring.”

    About the only thing on which Richard Dawkins is dead wrong (and PCC is dead right).

    If one applies the usual standards of literary judgement (I vaguely remember, could be wrong about some of them) such as character development, narrative consistency, delineation of character, credibility of the plotline – then the Bible miserably fails. I’ve read engineering textbooks that were better.

    (To be fair, I think ‘character development’ was much over-emphasised, if a character is well-written and interesting I don’t care if they don’t change much).


    • Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

      I always read that comment by Dawkins as a magnanimous toss-away to grease the rails for his main critique.

      • Posted September 7, 2017 at 6:05 am | Permalink

        No, he really believe it; I’ve argued with him about this.

        • Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

          A matter of taste, then.

        • Posted September 7, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          Nearly every line of Mark begins with “And…” (redacted in translations.) Not very poetic.

    • Harrison
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      It’s really unfair to judge it by the standards of the modern novel. The Bible is a collection of law, myth, popular stories, poetry, etc. It would be as though you’d taken the Constitution, Federalist Papers, and a selection of popular American poems and short stories and published them all as a single volume. It would not even come close to obeying narrative conventions. But that was never the point.

      Dawkins’ point is that there is great literature to be found in it. And more importantly, great cultural significance.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

        Well, calling it ‘literature’ does imply that it should be judged by literary standards.

        But I’m not hung up on literary judgement, in fact most of the books I like would fall short of ‘serious literature’ in one way or another. But they are very readable (for me), which probably means they do incorporate at least some of those attributes I mentioned.

        I’ll quite happily judge the Bible just by its readability – but in that respect it fails miserably. A few interesting passages but most of it is incoherent and boring.

        So I’m trying to figure out by which standards (choose any you like) the Bible counts as ‘great literature’. I can’t think of any. This may be a failure of imagination on my part.

        Cultural significance is a different issue entirely.


  28. Posted September 6, 2017 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Even if everything were whitewashed, I still think that there would be value to comparative religion classes. Even just seeing that there are other faiths and what they believe would expand the horizon of many people, and, one hopes, perhaps even make some of them wonder why they happen to have the religion they have and if they would have a different one if they had been born elsewhere.

  29. Posted September 8, 2017 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    My, how we divagate — everything from The Bible v The Hobbit, to what constitutes great literature, to falsely equating Comparative Religious studies with “religious thinking”, theology, brainwashing or just banning the subject altogether, because it would have to be so anodyne as to make any attempt to teach it worthless. Certainly, Jerry makes his point, and correctly so. In fact, I have had personal and professional experience with the pitfalls of teaching mythology and screenwriting at both the college and corporate level. I had no idea of what I was getting into, nor could I anticipate that so many Fundamentalist Christians would sign up for the course with the express purpose of sabotaging it. But, that’s exactly what happened, and I fear the same would happen on any level of public education.

    But thinking it through, I feel it would be a mistake to abandon the effort just yet. Sure, we have to be more creative and assertive about it. But i think part of the problem is the title, Comparative Religion itself. As I’ve read and surmised from some of the comments in this thread it appears to carry a lot of personal baggage along with it.

    What do we mean by Comparative Religion, or, more importantly, since it obviously means different things to different people perhaps we can reframe the scope and syllabi of such a proposed field of study so it doesn’t ring so many bells, or none at all. In other words, we’ve come such a long way in understanding myths and misbeliefs, and through such a wide spectrum of corresponding and validating sciences, the term Comparative Religion seems almost archaic. Indeed, what I am proposing is not deconstructing denominational belief systems tit for tat, but incorporating anthropology, archaeology, geology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, ethnology, history, mythology and storytelling all in one as an overview of human evolution. If the body evolved, then so did the human brain, and, thusly, so has human thought. Myths, legends, beliefs and religions are simply milestones of that evolutionary journey. They are not dangerous in and of themselves, but quite the opposite. The danger is in relegating the responsibility of instructing them to religious zealots and fanatics. As Robert Oxton Bolt once wrote: A belief is not an idea the mind possesses, but an idea that possesses the mind. Or, as Joseph Campbell reiterates: “It is one of the great lessons of our study [of religions] that for the vulgar, ill- or uninstructed mind, myths tend to become history…”

    I’m reminded, too of Dr. Andy Thomson’s excellent book ” Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith Pitchstone Publishing (June 1, 2011) where he declares, “We are getting tantalizingly close to a comprehensive cognitive neuroscience of religious belief. Robust Theories. Empirical evidence.”

    Finally, the brightest atheists I know are the most religiously informed individuals on the planet. I started my own lifelong mythological scholarship from when I first started to read. I can think of no more valuable tool than to hand over to children the keys to unraveling the mystery and history of human evolution than through the stories we have told ourselves from the beginning of time.

  30. Posted September 8, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Religion, or any other topic, should be open for discussion and for increasing the knowledge of individual(s) who want to know. Ignorance is “deplorable”. Every individual having the tools necessary to evaluate all areas of human knowledge may not be achievable, but should not be blocked, as so much is, by what is and isn’t considered appropriate in a given context or venue.

    In raising our three children, my husband and I
    did not leave education completely in the hands of the schools. We told our children that they could ask us any question on any subject. If we knew the answers, we would discuss it with them. If we didn’t know the answers, we’d do the research to get them answers. We were a household of readers with an extensive library (and with access to great public libraries). Home schooling and charter schools were not options then, but had we wanted to teach our children at home, I had the liberal arts and social sciences covered and my husband had math and physical sciences covered (with crossover.)

    I can understand the concerns about what should and shouldn’t be taught about religion in schools and at what level of detailed information. However, since education has more and more been left in the hands of the public schools and not the parents (other than the home schooling and charter school movements) all areas of knowledge should be considered.
    As has been pointed out, American public school graduates have become ever more deficient in
    basic knowledge and skill sets.

  31. Posted September 8, 2017 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    A comment about the U.S. having been established as a Christian nation. When the colonies were established, each one had a “state” religion. See:


    “Most instances of state-supported religion were removed before 1850, and the remaining requirements became null and void after the passing of the 14th Amendment on July 28, 1868. New Hampshire and North Carolina removed the nullified religious references from their state constitutions in 1875 and 1877 respectively.”

    So, even after the Constitution, and in some cases after the Civil War, states still had state supported “state” religions.

    Initially, there was no “freedom of religion” in these colonies except when Roger Williams’ established Rhode Island and William Penn established Pennsylvania.

    Rhode Island:

    “The first dissenter, Roger Williams (c.1603-1683), was himself a Puritan minister… In his view, the civil authorities of Massachusetts had no authority to involve themselves in matters of faith. The true church, according to Williams, was a voluntary association of God’s elect.

    Banished from Massachusetts in 1635, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, the first colony with no established church and the first society in America to grant liberty of conscience to everyone.”


    “Section. 2. That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their Own consciences and understanding: And that no man ought or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship, or erect or support any place of worship, or maintain any ministry, contrary to, or against, his own free will and consent: nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account or his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship: And that no authority can or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or In any manner controul, the right of conscience in the free exercise of religious worship.

    Section 10… shall each [representative] before they proceed to business take… the following oath or affirmation:

    ‘I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration.’

    And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this state.”

    Prior to these two colonies, rights in the colonies were tied to being members (in good standing) of the “state religion”, which usually meant Christianity, but could possibly encompass other interpretations of one god (deism) or religions worshiping one god.

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