Monday, February 11, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Stop praying, start reading

The secularization of American public education has bred a nation of devout religious illiterates.

By Patrick Grumley and Matt Leighton

While it seems to be a growing trend for religious enthusiasts to claim that secular, and even atheist, ideologies are hugging the public square, evangelicalism seems to have more than just outlived the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. To date, Christianity has been the self-proclaimed founder of American morality. More recently however, Jesus and the divinely inspired have found competition at the book store by atheist authors such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on the subject of morality and divinity. This dichotomy of ideals has fostered the public war between the religious and secular State, much to the amusement of European onlookers.

For many elementary schools in Europe, students are taught compulsory religious education. By middle school, students are well aware of the holy books of Christianity, Islam, Judaism and have some understanding of Buddhism and Hinduism. In spite of this knowledge, most European students are far less likely to regularly attending church, a mosque or synagogue. Americans seem to be just the opposite. As Stephen Prothero, the head chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University regards religion in the United States, "here faith without understanding is the norm, and religious ignorance is bliss."

Most Americans understand the central tenet of a separation of church and state, but a University of North Carolina study revealed few undergraduates can name the clauses that determine the extent of this separation (the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses), or even where it is found in the constitution (the First Amendment). The secularization of American public education has bred a nation of devout religious illiterates. The First Amendment clause of freedom of religion has been whittled down to an easier stance of freedom from religion.

This begs the question: was the United States founded by a homogeneous team of Christian scholars as so many "born agains" like to claim? One does not need to look too far for the questioned to be answered. When the words, "founding fathers" are uttered out of any mouth, perhaps two of the most prominent figures to proverbially appear would be Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Both of these men adopted the nonreligious and less indoctrinated stance of Deism (loosely defined as a belief in a higher authority through nature's evidence, not divine revelation), and were certainly not convinced the Bible was divine corollary. Once again, any inquisitive mind only has to look as far as the autobiographies of either man to find evidence of this assertion. In Franklin's autobiography he directly claims to be a, "thorough Deist," and Jefferson's rhetoric almost always referred to a creator and not to Jesus. It then becomes rather obvious that the constitutional clauses were put in place not just to show toleration to those who will choose a non-Judeo-Christian ideology in the future, but also to facilitate the non-religious position of some of those who created it.

Sociologist Peter L. Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country, and Sweden is the least, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Well, not really. The secular left feel just as besieged as the religious right. A commonly held fear by secularists is the notion that popular political thought is stumbling back to a medievalist theocracy where President George W. Bush and his acolytes answer to God before the people. Much to the consternation of this school of thought, nearly 90 percent of Congress claim to reference the Bible when making important legislative decisions. In the year 2000, Christianity claimed a score of 50 out of 50 as the religion held by State Governors. Similarly, 93 percent of Americans say they would elect a Jew to the presidency, but only around half of Americans would vote for a properly suited atheist.

Religion is as pervasive in civic society as it was during the First and Second Great Awakening. The debate on whether America is Christian or secular nation is fundamentally confused, it has always been both. The United States by law is a secular nation. God is not mentioned in the constitution, and the first amendment and Supreme Court litmus tests have prohibited the endorsement of religion by the State. Nonetheless, the free exercise clause grants citizens religion by choice and safeguards religious liberty. The irony of the situation is both the faithful and the secularists act as though they are on the verge of extinction, while neither is close to it, nor is either close to monopoly.

Most of the theist doctrines that are dismissed as fables by Europeans such as heaven and hell, the resurrection of Jesus and Noah's flood story are enthusiastically adopted as divine truth by American believers. Americans are staunchly religious, and through the international lens are many times viewed as Christian fanatics and fundamentalists. However, Americans put their money where their mouth is. The annual giving to houses of worship in the United States of $88 billion is around the gross domestic product of Syria. The devaluation of the dollar may not only be weighed in monetary terms, as most Americans, including the more than 250 million who claim to be Christian, can only name on average five of the possible 12 Ten Commandments pending on the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish text they are derived from.

If Americans are to contribute to intellectual civil discourse on the subject of religion, it is a prerequisite to first understand their own religion as well as the religions of their allies and adversaries. The most widely quoted Biblical saying, "God helps those who help themselves" is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but was originally found in Aesop's Fables, and later transliterated to the modern aphorism by Benjamin Franklin. American politicians and diplomats manifest the same religious illiteracy of the citizens who elected and nominate them. When asked whether al-Qaida was a Sunni or Shiite organization, the head of the House Intelligence Committee incorrectly guessed Shiite. Then again, he is not alone as many Americans connect Islam to terrorism and Islamo-fascism, but lack any knowledge to back this claim. When learning any subject, a minimal understanding always precedes critical evaluation. The same formula needs to be applied to religion. If one decides to adopt or denounce the Quran or Bible, it may be good practice to have read them first.

What do you think?