Dr. Ed Trimmer
Executive Director of the Cal Turner, Jr. Center for Church Leadership at Martin Methodist College
We can teach the Bible and World Religions in the PUBLIC High School and doing so permissible by the Supreme Court and its interpretation of the First Amendment. This statement is true but most Americans think it is false. The Pew Charitable Trust has been conducting surveys for years and just recently surveyed Americans about their general knowledge of the Bible and World Religions. In the survey results, bound to hit headlines, those who describe themselves as atheists and/or agnostics had better knowledge of World Religions than any other group, with LDS (Mormons) and Jews close behind. Unfortunately, evangelical Protestants did not fare well in the survey and Catholics were the worst in their knowledge. However, Evangelical Protestants did better with the Bible questions than most other groups except the LDS.
I and many other Christians have thought that a basic class on the Bible as Literature and another on World Religions ought to be offered in public high schools. The Supreme Court has consistently ALLOWED this type of class but this idea has not universally caught on in most school boards. There are communities that have for years taught a class on the Bible as Literature within the English curriculum and World Religions with the “Social Studies” offerings of the local high school. Are you ready to advocate for these two courses in your community with your school board?
Even in the United States, the third largest country in the world by population and the country with largest population of self-professing Christians, the religious diversity of our country continues to grow. Diane Eck has called the United States the most religious diverse country in the history of humankind. Yet, as this survey indicates, we are exceeding ignorant not only of the Bible BUT of other World Religions and their beliefs and customs. We are seemingly ready to believe any “false witness” against other religions particularly Islam and Neo-paganism. I know that I began my study of other World Religions because youth were consistently asking me questions about other religious beliefs that I had no factual knowledge of. In my readiness to witness for the cause and case of Jesus Christ, I did not want to “slander” other religions by what was false.
Stephen Prothero, author of both Religious Literacy and God is Not One, and professor of Religion at Boston University (one of the over 100 colleges and universities still related to the United Methodist Church) has argued, quite convincingly I believe, that “even if religion does not make sense to you, you can’t make sense of the world without knowing something about the world’s religion.” The subtitle of his book, God is Not One is the eight rival religions that run the world and why their differences matter. While the author continues to struggle with his own religious identity, his book is a great start for trying to understand the significant differences between World Religions as well as putting an end to the idea that all of the world religions say essentially the same thing as William Blake claimed in 1795 and was popularized by Huston Smith in the late 1950’s.
Knowing something about the religious beliefs of our neighbors be they Christians, or otherwise, ought to be part of both our civil duty and even our religious duty, so that when we witness for Jesus Christ we are not doing so in a manner that slanders or bears false witness against our neighbors.
What do you think? Ed Trimmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
*This article was originally published in the Tennessee Conference Review October 15, 2010. Re-used by permission.