A Conversation about Religious Literacy

Three religious studies professors from Georgia State University discuss religious literacy. The conversation took place via instant message; Molly Bassett and Isaac Weiner were in Atlanta, GA and Vincent Lloyd was in Portland, OR. Bassett specializes in Mesoamerican religions, Weiner specializes in American religions, and Lloyd specializes in philosophy of religion and religious ethics.


Vincent Lloyd: As I was flying into Portland, Obama was leaving on Air Force One.  A protester had a sign that said “Obama is an atheist Muslim.”

Isaac Weiner: Hmmm… What does that teach us about religious illiteracy in America?

Vincent: Some religious studies professors seem to think that’s a very fixable problem… and it’s our jobs.

Molly Bassett: It seems like religious literacy needs to begin before college and be accessible to people who don’t go to college, too.

Isaac: Would a high school religious studies course actually have prevented that kind of political sign?  In other words, is that a problem of religious illiteracy, or does it say something about the political discourse in our country?

Vincent: …and does the response suggest the redemptive aspirations of religious studies academics?

Isaac: So maybe we should start with what it is that we’re responding to?

Molly: Yes.

Isaac: In response to the recent Pew survey, Stephen Prothero renewed his call for mandatory religious studies and Bible courses in U.S. public schools.  What do we think of his proposal?  What does he think it will accomplish?

Vincent: It seems like, at least in the simplest form, there’s a sense that knowing lots of facts will make people rational… which it obviously won’t.

Isaac: Right.  I’m skeptical that if more Catholics could identify correctly the name of the first book of the Bible, then that would elevate the rational discourse in this country.

Vincent: Additionally, it’s understanding other’s humanity, their motivations and so on, that he seems to want.

Molly: It seems like a worthwhile understanding of religions has less to do with facts and more to do with how people understand the world and their place within it.

Vincent: But it seems like often the desire to understand one’s own world leads one to try to understand others’ worlds at the expense of reflecting on one’s own.

Molly: Oh, but I think that trying to understand another’s world(view) often forces one to reflect on one’s own.  Or I hope that’s how it works (at least some of the time).

Isaac: I think Prothero has argued that we need some kind of shared knowledge base before we can move to the more complicated kinds of conversations that religious studies aims to facilitate.  He seems to see the process as gradual — but that we need to begin with the “facts,” so to speak.

Vincent: The moralism of childhood religiousness is abandoned but the ethos can remain when one gets that ethos from others’ religions… but without grappling with the difficult stuff, the do’s and don’ts — and I feel like that’s what motivates proposals like Prothero’s, but those who put them forward won’t admit it.

Molly: When I teach our Survey of World Religions, I struggle to find a balance between making sure that students know enough of the basics to talk about the traditions we study (e.g., Islam is the name of the religion and Muslims are the people who practice Islam) and facilitating discussions that would rank higher on Bloom’s taxonomy. The do’s and don’ts… Could you give us an example?

Vincent: I was thinking about ‘character education’, which some religious studies scholars are wary of, but which grapples with (at its best) how our own tradition informs and forms who we should be and what we should do, and not do.

Isaac: We seem to have two conversations going on right now — one about “the facts/basics” and one about morals/character education/normativity/etc.  Should we separate these, and just try to take on one at a time?

Vincent: I think they’re the same… that focus on the facts/basics is a way to avoid the morals/character —  fetishizing the empirical at the expense of the genuinely human, or whatever.

Isaac: There is a whole history of character education in the schools, right?  In the 1970s, for example, it was liberals pushing for moral and character education, but in a way that specifically divorced it from any particular religious viewpoint.  It strove toward a “universal” or perhaps even secular morality.  Conservatives decried this, of course.  And they raised very powerful critiques of the way that supposedly secular public education itself occupies a particular normative position — that even a respect for “critical thinking” can be subversive of “traditional” religious beliefs and morality.

Molly: Someone who knows the facts/basics would know what they’re doing when they say “atheist Muslim.”  Do you think the protester did?

Vincent: I don’t think the protester was using language to refer to reality; he was expressing (political) feelings.

Isaac: I agree with Vincent, and that’s what’s often subsumed in these debates.  The “problem” with hyperbolic political discourse can’t simply be solved by teaching people the “facts.”

 Vincent: Hyperbolic political discourse would just be expressed in different idioms…

 Isaac: I see a problem, therefore, with liberals’ failure to own up to the ways that their vision of public education does make certain normative claims — ones which can be defended, rather than hidden in the name of neutrality. Prothero’s return to “the facts” or “the basics” conceals his actual normative agenda, then, right?  That greater knowledge and understanding will lead to empathy, compassion, tolerance, respect, etc.?

Vincent: Yes, though calling that a normative agenda makes it sound more deliberate and conscious than perhaps it is.  Rather, he’s part of a certain tradition for which it is crucially important to not recognize itself as a tradition… a tradition that makes use of a certain understanding of religion as essentially human: he writes,

From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests.

It seems like any discrete “religious education” in high schools would simply play into that.  Only religious education integrated into history / English / social studies etc. would not — and that’s already happening, no?

Isaac: Which in some ways mirrors/parallels the whole McCutcheon school arguing against religious studies departments. Which is an oddly perverse argument to be made by religious studies professors.  Isn’t it in our interest to support religious studies courses at the secondary school level?  Having worked as a religious studies teacher at the secondary school level, I’m more comfortable with the basic ides of separate religious studies courses, I think.  But what we teach in those courses is the rub.  Religious education is only kind of integrated into those other courses, Vincent.

Molly: Is there a way to teach the basics so that students understand their real world implications?  Or does that politicize the basics?

Isaac: What state standards dictate is often very different from what happens in the classroom.  Because of a failure to understand what courts have said, many schools refrain from actually teaching religion.  And other schools teach whatever idiosyncratic understanding individual teachers have.  My concern is about the narratives of U.S. religious history and identity that are inscribed into these standards — or inscribed into the way religion would be taught.

Molly: Which gets us to teaching teachers how to teach religious studies?

Isaac: Right, Molly.  In the absence of “proper” training, teaching religion in the public schools could be worse than not teaching it at all.

Vincent: Yes, I agree.  It seems like this is where secondary education is different than university religious studies courses.  Presumably at the university level instructors have specialized training that would often avoid the pitfalls of asking secondary school teachers to do discrete units on religious studies.

Molly: Presumably and hopefully.

Isaac: In the absence of that kind of specialized training, I imagine two kinds of teaching/learning happening in the classroom. 1) Teachers teach what is familiar to them — these courses become an opportunity to teach Christianity and the Bible in the public schools. 2) Teachers teach the “strange and exotic” — which similarly re-enforces a narrative of us/them — “we” are historically a Christian nation that is learning to deal with and be respectful of/tolerant of “others.”  On the other hand, is that any different from what we do at the university level?

Molly: Well, I’m in the middle of reading an excerpt from Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time, and he argues that the academy’s mission is to academicize – that is,

to detach [a politically explosive issue] from the context of its real world urgency, where there is a vote to be taken or an agenda to be embraced, and insert it into a context of academic urgency, where there is an account to be offered or an analysis to be performed (27).

Does extracting a political issue – like this protester – from its real world context do students any good?  Is there a way to infuse religion and “real life” that’s non-biased and productive?  We have colleagues working in religion and secondary education – developing curricula for (private) high schools.  So I think there are some good models for how non-specialist high school teachers can teach religious studies.

 Isaac: Molly, I agree.  But a) we have a problem of scale.  I think only Harvard right now actually has a program in religion and secondary school education.  And b) it becomes the ever fragile issue of deciding what is “core” — which gets back to the narratives of history and identity.

 Molly: And there’s the issue of demand: Is there a demand for teachers prepared to teach religious studies at the secondary level?  Or is the demand for curricula / instruction for (private) school teachers who can learn to teach religious studies?

 [The time allocated for the discussion expires]

 Vincent: It was fun chatting with y’all!

 Molly: Same here!

 Isaac: Ditto!

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