Knowing about Religion

by Kieran Healy on February 15, 2004

Kevin Drum is surprised to learn that schools in Britain offer religious education classes. (Ireland is the same, by the way.) He comments that “I don’t think there’s anything unconstitutional about teaching a “History of Religion” class or something like it in an American high school, but it just wouldn’t happen. And then a proposal to add atheism as one of the highlighted religions? Kaboom!”

I’ve wondered before about this, in part because of a course in Classical Social Theory that I teach. I usually take a detour for a lecture before we read some Max Weber, because a chunk of the class (upper-level undergraduates) will have no clear idea what the Reformation was. This surprised me when it first happened, but now I anticipate it. Last year I got a very nice evaluation from an evangelical Protestant student saying, in part, “Thanks for respecting my views and for all the information about where Protestantism came from! I never knew that!” She would wear “Jesus Loves You” t-shirts to class and really livened up our discussions about Durkheim.

{ 35 comments }

1

Walt Pohl 02.15.04 at 9:53 pm

How is that possible?

2

harry 02.15.04 at 10:39 pm

In many UK schools its not just history of religion, but something akin to religious instruction. Does he know that the state collaborates with churches in running public schools? And that, legally, all schools must have a collective act of worship every day?

Bible as Literature is a standard college prep course in lots of American High Schools. Lots of choir and orchestra classes play a lot of devotional music — obviously: to disallow it would be like disallowing 80% of the classics from Literature classes (I know, I know, the pomos and lots of the multiculturalists would like to do that too, but it doesn’t make it any less absurd).

3

Albert Law 02.15.04 at 10:46 pm

Kieran,

More than 50% of Americans are Protestants and a chunk ( most? ) of them don’t know about 1517 and the 95 theses? What do they teach at those Sunday schools?

4

Kieran Healy 02.15.04 at 10:57 pm

Harry: Yes, I should have made it clear that RE classes were more religious instruction / being a Godly Person classes than religious history. Ireland doesn’t require a collective act of worship.

Albert: I’m not saying anything about what most American Protestants know about the history of the Reformation. (There’s probably data somewhere.) I’m just reporting what my experience has been.

5

Ophelia Benson 02.15.04 at 11:05 pm

“And that, legally, all schools must have a collective act of worship every day?”

Did I know that? I must have. But I’m not sure. I knew about RE. But a collective act of worship – of what? And – and –

Oh, never mind.

But how odd that we’re the god-ridden place and the UK isn’t. That we’re the notorious godbotherers and Ukanians aren’t.

6

mg 02.15.04 at 11:16 pm

Sunday school is not about the history of religion or even theology. It’s usually about short moral lessons derived from specific scriptural passages (OT or NT).

7

laura 02.15.04 at 11:28 pm

I learned about the Reformation in high school in the U.S. On the other hand, I not only went to a private high school but took AP European history. I’m not at all sure it’s the norm to take a real European history class here.

8

rosalind 02.15.04 at 11:47 pm

I took a “World Religions” class my senior year in high school in the U.S., but it was a private school. And the class was a history elective, not a requirement. One of the boys in it was a deeply religious evangelical Christian (sounds rather like Professor Healy’s student). I got the feeling that the class was sometimes painful for him, particularly during the unit on Christianity, but he made terrific contributions to discussion.
It was a wonderful class.

9

Jeremy Pierce 02.16.04 at 12:26 am

Most liberal churches in the U.S. don’t care a whole lot about the Reformation, since it had to do with theological correctness. Most conservative churches that are concerned about theology are more concerned about deriving theology from the scriptures than from historical figures. A great number probably shy away from theological issues in favor of experiential stuff.

10

Cryptic Ned 02.16.04 at 1:35 am

More than 50% of Americans are Protestants and a chunk ( most? ) of them don’t know about 1517 and the 95 theses? What do they teach at those Sunday schools?

They teach about the Bible and the doctrine and about how to live in Sunday school. I went to Sunday School for ten years and there was never a single word about the history of where Protestantism came from. That would have been extremely out of place.

I never knew that my denomination, Presbyterianism, was the official church of Scotland until this year (I’m 21).

I don’t know why knowing about religious disagreements four hundred years ago would be in any way relevant to a child’s upbringing nowadays. It’s not like learning national history, where you need to be informed about the context of what’s happening in your own back yard. Churches don’t teach about the historical figures that shaped the church rituals; that would distract from the whole idea that the scripture leads naturally to the faith.

As for learning about it in history class, that’s European history, rather than American history. I don’t think any public school requires a class in European history.

11

cafl 02.16.04 at 2:01 am

This year my daughter learned quite a bit about the Reformation in her AP US history class, since it had a pretty big bearing on who came to the US in Colonial times. And as I posted at Calpundit, my American History class in high school did the same.

12

Ophelia Benson 02.16.04 at 2:17 am

“I don’t know why knowing about religious disagreements four hundred years ago would be in any way relevant to a child’s upbringing nowadays. It’s not like learning national history, where you need to be informed about the context of what’s happening in your own back yard.”

Ew.

Is that parody? It is, right? Sheer parody. Right?

13

drapetomaniac 02.16.04 at 3:24 am

disallow it would be like disallowing 80% of the classics from Literature classes

80% of the classics are about the bible? and studying the bible qua bible is the same as studying texts that allude to it in passing or even in a significant way?

classes (I know, I know, the pomos and lots of the multiculturalists would like to do that too, but it doesn’t make it any less absurd).

correct me if i’m wrong, but are you the same gent whose twender wittle cwoncern for african-americans inspired a hissy fit against the firing of someone who used racial epithets? i’d just like to file this comment correctly.

14

Bernard Yomtov 02.16.04 at 3:36 am

Drapetomaniac,

I don’t think Harry was saying that 80% of literary classics are about the Bible. He was saying that a large (80%?) fraction of serious music is religiously inspired, and to bar music of that type would be like barring an equivalent share of literature.

I have no idea whether 80% is correct, but it is surely true that a big part of serious music is religious. Check out Bach’s biography sometime.

15

Anthony 02.16.04 at 7:34 am

I’m going to uselessly echo the statement that I had a “World Religions” class (in my private high school), although ours was required for Sophomores (the only class required for Sophomores, in fact), and I’m also relatively certain we at least defined the terms “atheist” and “agnostic.” At any rate, they were fair topics for discussion. But that’s Westchester private high school, for you. What confuses me is the Reformation, and general lack of European history, which I’ve noticed myself in my fellow undergraduates. A professor teaching a survey course of 20th century European Intellectual History actually revised the schedule to include a lecture on basic WWI history, to give the class a much-needed context. I was fairly shocked; I knew of the reformation as early as middle school, and got much more detail in AP Euro, but I guess this distinguishes the school system I went through (not all private, mind you).

16

Mrs Tilton 02.16.04 at 9:47 am

Ophelia Benson asks,

But how odd that we’re the god-ridden place and the UK isn’t. That we’re the notorious godbotherers and Ukanians aren’t.

Alexander Cockburn (who was not in the UK for his RE, but close enough) once wrote that a child not immunised by compulsory religious education was susceptible to all manner of religious enthusiasm. I suspect that the USA’s strict separation of church and state (well; it was pretty strict when I was living there) facilitates religiosity rather than otherwise. There are many bad things about American churches, but Erastianism isn’t generally one of them.

(I would add that I live in another country that has compulsory RE in the state schools. Though its two state churches are only de facto, not de jure establishments, they probably enjoy more state support than does the Church of England; and about 80% of the population are nominal members of the one church or the other. Yet church attendance is very low, and attempted church interference in state affairs minimal.)

17

des 02.16.04 at 10:30 am

Alexander Cockburn (who was not in the UK for his RE, but close enough) once wrote that a child not immunised by compulsory religious education was susceptible to all manner of religious enthusiasm. I

Zackly. The Church of England isn’t really a religion; it’s an innoculation against religion.

Personally I consider the decline in UK church attendance a worrying augury of a possible future outbreak of virulent religiosity.

18

harry 02.16.04 at 2:08 pm

Nice to meet you again too, drape. Not the most charitable way of putting it, but yes, that was me. Have this horrible feeling when the teachers of my acquaintance say that the classics shouldn’t be compulsory that they are trying to keep something for themselves and their children. Like when they get up in arms about vouchers, having themselves bought houses in the neighbourhoods with the best schools. Not a big deal though. And thanks, Bernard, for explaining my garbled comment correctly.

I was being a bit flippant about the devotional music, but it is, in fact, a non-trivial problem. School administrators are not always completely cognisant of the state of first amendment law (which is, anyway, entirely confusing); and even when they are they can’t be sure that district administrators will back them up. So they have a strong incentive to evade parental complaints by avoiding anything that *might* be controversial. And in small school districts one lawsuit, however unfounded, can break the bank. Caution is sometimes the order of the day, and music teachers are frequently encouraged to avoid devotional music. This is more of a problem for choir than orchestra. The same dynamic discourages classes like Bible as Literature and, come to think of it, may go some way to explaining Kevin’s initial observation. (Our district has excellent legal guidelines for teaching Bible as Lit, drawn up by the district legal department, but its the only class I know of which has legal guidelines that every teacher has to read).

19

Ophelia Benson 02.16.04 at 2:57 pm

So the remark about how unnecessary a European history course is for Murkan students wasn’t parody then?

Oy.

20

Ophelia Benson 02.16.04 at 3:01 pm

“Alexander Cockburn (who was not in the UK for his RE, but close enough) once wrote that a child not immunised by compulsory religious education was susceptible to all manner of religious enthusiasm.”

Hmm, interesting. I have heard that idea before, of course. Maybe so, maybe so. Though there are other variables, so it’s hard to say how much difference that makes.

21

Cryptic Ned 02.16.04 at 3:25 pm

So the remark about how unnecessary a European history course is for Murkan students wasn’t parody then?

Who said that? Are you referring to me?

I said that learning about the history of the church isn’t necessary for churchgoers. It’s not always essential to learn things. Sometimes it distracts from the main point of an experience. At church, they want you to internalize the doctrine and have faith in its veracity. There’s no real need to do that by comparing it to other doctrines, or by describing the history of the leaders of the church. That sort of makes the church prosaic instead of divinely inspired.

If you doubt that, well, churches don’t generally teach about the history of their denominations, and I think they would if they thought it would help people.

22

BP 02.16.04 at 3:29 pm

“That we’re the notorious godbotherers and *Ukanians* aren’t. “

Oh yay, another irrepressible kuro5hin phrase …

23

Mrs Tilton 02.16.04 at 3:58 pm

I am not nearly cool enough to know any kuro5hin phrases. But, in any event, Ukogbanian would be better.

24

Tim 02.16.04 at 4:32 pm

I think the law requiring ‘A daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character’ is more honoured in the breach than the observance. At my school, we used to have a bible reading every day (except Monday, oddly, when we had a piece of secular literature instead), but that was pretty unusual.

RE lessons in state schools are generally comparative religion and ethics classes. Their content, as for most lessons in British schools, is laid down by the national curriculum.

25

Stentor 02.16.04 at 4:37 pm

In my church growing up, we heard more about the Reformation than most — my mom says she wonders whether our pastor worships Martin Luther instead of Jesus. Even then, that still wasn’t a lot. But when I went to college, we learned about church history — both the Reformation and the early church — all the time. I think that’s because it was an extremely ecumenical congregation, and historical details were something that the Baptists and Congregationalists could all agree on.

26

harry 02.16.04 at 4:58 pm

tim says:

bq. I think the law requiring ‘A daily act of collective worship of a broadly Christian character’ is more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Yes, certainly. Especially in secondary schools, where I’d be surprised if more than 10% of non-religious schools do it. I don’t know when Tim went to school, but the decline in the daily act started in the early seventies (partly for practical reasons — the UK baby boom was starting to kick in, and schools had more kids than they could fit in the assembly hall, so assembly became twice or even once a week, in year group-defined groups rather than whole-school), and then continued precipitously in the 80’s.

27

Martin 02.16.04 at 8:08 pm

Actually RE is one of the few things that is not part of the National Curriculum. The Standards site linked to is a non-compulsary guide: “you can use as much or as little as you wish.” Where I live the syllabus is decided on at the LEA level and I suspect the same is true elsewhere.

As Harry says the daily act has entirely fallen by the wayside. At my Secondary school we had assembly twice a term and it never involved a collective act of worship.

28

AAB 02.16.04 at 8:27 pm

I think I would support for a curriculum that teaches history and principles of religions (i.e. faith and truth claims etc). I would also include atheism, agnostism etc in there. But no mass worship of anything.

(Heck may be that would stop the religion advocates from pushing their stuff to science classes!!)

29

teep 02.16.04 at 9:14 pm

I’ll weigh in here and back up Kieran. While I actually got pretty decent grounding in the history of the Lutheran church in confirmation classes, most people I had college classes with (English literature, Penn State, early 1990’s) showed up there without any background on where protestants came from or why, as a class, they existed.

Additionally, most people I had college classes with, even the “religious” ones, had no clue regarding anything from the old testament that wasn’t Noah or Moses. I do not know what the deal is with that… do they just teach the new testament in church these days? (Not a churchgoer, myself. Atheist.)

If anyone is interested in pimping up his or her Bible clue, here are adorable Lego-ized bible stories with actual biblical texts. It’s very cool stuff:

http://www.thereverend.com/brick_testament/

30

john bragg 02.16.04 at 10:20 pm

I teach social studies in an overwhelmingly black public high school. Most of my students find out that they are Protestants in World History class.

31

harry 02.16.04 at 10:30 pm

teep, you did mean ‘pumping up’ didn’t you? My experience teaching college exactly mirrors yours; with a very few exceptions neither the religious students, nor the militant atheists know much abut the history of Christianity, or about scripture. Those who do are good news in class, with only one exception I can think of.

32

teep 02.16.04 at 11:01 pm

Harry: Yes. Brain misfired, I suspect. One *pumps* up clue and *pimps* out sites. My bad.

33

Ruth 02.17.04 at 3:33 pm

As far as avoiding religious content in US public school classrooms goes, I’d think that there’s at least as much fear of angering conservative Christians as there is of sparking a first amendment lawsuit. Honestly, how’s a parent who teaches his or her child that the Bible is the unadulterated word of God going to respond to a class that teaches it as literature?

As a contribution to the I’m-amazed-at-what-my-students-don’t-know-about-their-own-religion stories, I’ll offer one of a woman in my Intro to Literature class who wrote an analysis of the 23rd Psalm, as rendered in the Norton anthology. Since it’s a lit book, the text was of course the King James. She’d grown up with the New International, or some such translation, and was horrified at how our book had gotten the verse “wrong,” and thus perverted its content. I had to write her a long note explaining that the Bible wasn’t actually originally written in English…

34

Andy 02.17.04 at 4:33 pm

Re; the daily collective act of worship in UK schools.

My recollection was that this only became a statutory requirment in 1988. The intention of the Government at the time was not to immunise children against religion.

Interestingly, New Labour have actually strengthened the requirment for an act of collective worship. It is now possible for a body of school governors to be condemned as ‘failing’ if the schools inspection regime finds that an daily act of collective worship is not being carried out.

35

PQuincy 02.17.04 at 8:31 pm

A few years ago, as a freshly minted professor, I was asked to teach a freshmen course on Martin Luther (It was on the books already, and I was qualified by my training).

The course was quite good — 15 frosh and sophomores, good discussion etc. At the last class, I asked the students for their thoughts more broadly. One hemmed and hawed a little, then said:

“Well, Professor, when I signed up I thought this was a course about Martin Luther King, but when you showed us the book cover the first class [with a portrait of Luther], I realized it couldn’t be. But it seemed interesting so I stayed.”

I was a bit flabbergasted…but noticed a titter going around the room. And I had to ask: everyone who thought this was about Martin Luther, raise your hand. The count? About 9 out of the 15….

But they learned!

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