Today I saw this post about the GCSE Religion exam in Great Britain. "GCSE" stands for "General Certificate of Secondary Education", and British students have to pass a test (or tests?) to obtain this. There was some disgust about the fact that secondary school students wouldn't be able to identify Mary or Joseph in a standard Nativity scene. Unlike the United States, Great Britain does have an official state church, even though they do accept other religions. The complaint in the article was that students spent too much time on world religions and not enough on Christianity.
Is that really the problem? I think it's the opposite problem--people aren't educated enough about ANY religion. The fact that we live in a modern, secular society doesn't change the fact that people do practice various religions. While I don't think anyone in a Western country is keen on having any particular religion foisted on them in public schools, the lack of historical education is, quite frankly, a problem. This is not about indoctrinating youth into a set of beliefs; it's about the religious history of civilization.
Think about this: I read a posting recently from a religion professor in a university who was teaching about the Crusades. A young conservative Christian student raised her hand, and wanted to know where the Protestants were in all of this. She seemed to be clueless about the fact that the Protestant Reformation took place about 400 years later. I've read similar accounts from professors who teach conservative Christian students in conservative Christian colleges. When questioned about the basics of their own religion, they fail. And when we talk about Christianity's intersection with American history--only look at the previous blog post to see how many idiots--including those in elected positions--still think that the U.S. was founded as a "Christian country".
Consider this as well: How many conspiracy theories are still extant about the Jews and a "Zionist plot"? How many people out there still think all Muslims are terrorists and linked with Al-Qaeda? And these are just the major monotheisms. I couldn't begin to tell you how many people ask me how I could practice Hinduism, when Hindus believe that all those statues are gods.
Ironically enough, those that oppose religious education the most vehemently are the very religious. There is a great fear that if their children learn about other religions, they will lose their faith in their parents' religion. To them I say--is your religion so flimsy and weak that it can't stand up to historical scrutiny?
This is not about teaching the Bible in class or some brand of Christianity. It's about teaching the basic facts and history of the major world religions--and about the impact of religion in society, and maybe looking at some of those religious works. There ought to be a History of Religions class that students have to pass before graduating from high school. There should be no editorializing, just the facts. Even the children of atheists would do well to understand the religious landscape and its context. It affects everything in our society, like it or not--and the negatives come mostly from ignorance.