The First Amendment does prohibit schools from setting up an establishment of religion. It does not permit discrimination against students because of their religious beliefs. Students remain free to pray on their own or read their Bibles at school. And teachers can talk about religious texts and traditions in an academic and non-devotional way.
Knowledge of religion is needed today. A Pew Center survey from a few years ago showed that Americans lack knowledge of religion. Almost half of Americans incorrectly think that the Ten Commandments include the Golden Rule. Fewer than half know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist. And only about 60 percent know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible.
Knowledge of religion helps us understand culture, history, and contemporary politics. Biblical literacy helps us appreciate Michelangelo and Bach, for example. And broad understanding of the history of Christianity helps us make sense of American history. Academic study of religion also sheds light on religious fundamentalism, which is only one way of reading and interpreting texts.
What you discover when you read the Bible and study its history is that things are more complicated — and interesting — than fundamentalists often admit.
Indeed, people disagree about what counts as Biblical. The Bible is a compilation of many books. Different Christians include different texts in their Bibles. What is canonical for some is apocryphal for others. Heretical texts were purged and heretics were persecuted. Some of this is ancient history. But the Book of Mormon offers a more recent example.
Bible scholars offer interesting food for thought. Many argue that the first books of the Old Testament wove together multiple sources. The book of Genesis appears to preserve threads of other, more ancient texts and traditions. For example, Noah’s flood is similar to the story told in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
The New Testament also contains several authors who present differing accounts. And other ancient Gospels have been discovered by archeologists. The history of Christianity shows that each generation offers new interpretations and insights into its canonical texts.
The academic study of Christianity also requires us to understand competing ancient philosophies, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, as well as ancient Jewish traditions. Christianity evolved in relation to these other traditions. The Apostle Paul interacts with Greek philosophers in Athens, to cite a famous Biblical example. Students in an academic Bible class should also study Seneca, Epicurus and ancient rabbis such as Hillel.
It is also useful to compare different interpretations of the Bible and what it supposedly teaches about ethics. Some Christians used the Bible to defend slavery, while others used it to argue for its abolition. Some Christians condemn homosexuality on Biblical grounds, others do not. Some Christians think the Bible requires radical projects of social welfare, others do not. Some Christians think Jesus was opposed to war, others do not.
Such differences show us the need for careful reading and critical argument. Academic study of the Bible should teach kids how to critically interpret texts and how to think for themselves about complex moral questions. And since this is the United States, the study of religion should also provide kids with insight into the need for religious liberty. The fact that there is disagreement about the Bible and what it teaches about morality shows us why we need the First Amendment.
This may not be what the president and his fundamentalist friends have in mind when they call for Bible literacy classes. But academic study of the Bible and religion is important in a diverse society that values religious liberty. Knowledge is better than ignorance. We benefit from open-minded inquiry into religious and textual traditions. And we should want students to learn to think for themselves about the books and ideas that have shaped our world.