Reading Time: 4 minutes

ERIN (11): Mohammed is believed by Muslims to be directly descended from the Angel Gabriel.

DAD, looking up from his book: Uh…really? I didn’t know that.

ERIN: It’s a question, Dad. True or false.

DAD, suddenly interested: Is this homework?

ERIN: Yes Dad, it’s homework, social studies, world religions, I’m terrible at it, so is it true or false??

DAD: Well you won’t get better at it if I just give you the answers.

ERIN: Plee-he-he-heeease, Daddy.

DAD: First tell me who Mohammed is.

ERIN: (*Sigh*) I don’t know. Some Jewish guy.

I could barely contain my delight. Not that she had bar mitzvahed the Prophet, which gave me the shpilkes, but that she was learning about religion in school — something I didn’t think the district would dare do.

Contrary to the fears of many nontheistic parents, and despite irritating nonsense from the occasional evangelical teacher, the vaaaaast majority of U.S. public school administrators are not the least bit interested in injecting religion into the classroom. On the contrary, they are terrified of getting into a constitutional row over it. In the early 90s, Becca’s principal forbade teachers to so much as put up the word DECEMBER in alternating red and green construction-paper letters lest (by associative property) one religion be invoked above others, however distantly.

But this isn’t that. Erin is studying religions, in the essential plural, an entirely good thing when done right.

I surfed over to the Georgia state social studies standards for sixth grade and found this standard tucked away under SS6G11, “The student will describe the cultural characteristics of Europe”:

b. Describe the major religions in Europe; include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

By grade seven in Georgia, “The student will

explain the diversity of religions within the Arab, Ashanti, Bantu, and Swahili ethnic groups

and

explain the diversity of religions within the Arabs, Persians, and Kurds

and

compare and contrast the prominent religions in Southern and Eastern Asia: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Shintoism and the philosophy of Confucianism

and even

describe how land and religion are reasons for continuing conflicts in the Middle East.

I LOVE THIS.

It would be wrongheaded (and unconstitutional) to favor any one religious perspective in the classroom, though that was the practice in the U.S. for generations. But a well-designed and well-taught curriculum in comparative religion would go a long way to improving our shameful status as one of the most religiously faithful AND most religiously ignorant countries on the planet.

My co-author Jan Devor put it this way in Raising Freethinkers (emphasis mine):

Europe and the United States are diametrically opposed in not one but two religious respects: belief in and knowledge of religion. The U.S. is both the most religiously enthusiastic and the least religious literate country in the developed world. We believe with great fervor but know very little about the tenets, history, and elements of our own belief systems, let alone those of our neighbors. Europeans, on the other hand, show very low levels of religious belief but, thanks to formal religious education in the schools, tend to have a very deep knowledge of religion.

Because U.S. schools shy away from teaching about religion, religious education falls to the parents—all parents. Religious parents can take advantage of whatever religious education is offered at church but have the detriment of a single, limiting point of view. Nonreligious parents reverse the polarity—the responsibility for the religious education of their children is primarily theirs, but unhindered by an organized doctrinal system, we have a greater opportunity to bring multiple perspectives to bear. And we must. Children who are ignorant of the elements of religion will be easy targets for religious zealotry and will be hobbled in their own free decisionmaking. Ignorance is impotence. Knowledge is power. (p. 69)

Gah, that’s a good passage.

Granted, the curriculum Fulton County is using is lame and uneven. Erin’s class watched three short films about the Abrahamics, then completed worksheets full of typos and oversimplifications ( “T/F: Judaism is diferent than other religions because there is onky one sect” — oy vey).

I don’t like the fact that each of the three is presented as a single thing — “Christians believe that…” is pretty close to meaningless, given the presence of 33,830 Christian denominations by last count — nor a hundred other things about it. But I can quibble with curricula in almost every subject. The important thing is that the kids are seeing Christianity placed side by side with other religions. This simple act has an automatic dethroning effect — mild for some, startling for others. And what balance and depth is missing, I’m helping Erin discover.

I helped her get past her confusion of Judaism and Islam in part by putting them in historical perspective with this insanely cool flash map showing the spread of the five largest religions:

Even this required supplementing, of course. For one thing, I had to point out that the grey areas certainly had beliefs of their own before they were subsumed into one or another of the corporate faiths, and that not everyone in a given color believes the same. I, for example, am not (at least in this respect) blue.

So I’m with Steven Prothero in supporting MORE religion in schools. Let’s call it Worldview Studies to include the nontheistic perspective. If the worksheets linked below are any indication, the current curricula vary from lame to awful. But done well, such a thing would enhance the ability of kids to make informed decisions in the long run.

I’ll expect your curricula on my desk by Friday.

The worksheet on Islam used by our district
The worksheet on Judaism
The worksheet on Christianity

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.