By Graeme Hamilton
October 3, 2009
MONTREAL — Half of U.S. high-school seniors surveyed recently thought Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
A McGill University professor’s reference to the patience of Job drew blank stares from students in his religion course. An art history teacher in France found children were mystified by the "strange bird" (a dove representing the Holy Ghost) common in Renaissance paintings.
Until recently, such confusion was little more than fodder for faculty-room jokes, evidence of the increasing secularism of Western societies. But educators attending a conference at McGill University this past week heard there is growing recognition in Europe and North America that religious illiteracy creates serious barriers between cultures.
"There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion that spans the globe," said Diane Moore, a professor at Harvard Divinity School. "The most significant consequence is that it fuels antagonism and hinders respect for pluralism, peaceful coexistence and co-operative endeavours."
Quebec, which last year introduced a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture course to replace Christian denominational classes, was held up as a leader in an effort to improve children’s religious literacy. The Quebec class covers all major world religions and is taught throughout primary and secondary school.
Spencer Boudreau, a professor of education at McGill, said he was struck by how little his students knew about religion. (He was the one who had to explain the biblical story of Job.) "It became more and more evident to me, the lack of knowledge — not only of other religions but of their own tradition," he said in an interview.
"I’m saying, how can you understand Canada, how can you understand Quebec, without some of this background knowledge?"
Ignorance of other religions was on display in Quebec in the recent debate over the "reasonable accommodation" of religious minorities and the move by the town of Herouxville, Que., to enact a code that amounted to a caricature of non-Christian religious practices. For example, the code informed new arrivals to the village that stoning of women was not allowed and that pork was a common menu item.
"What happened in Herouxville, I was embarrassed as a Quebecer," Boudreau said. "And it’s not just Quebec that would think like that."
He said Canadians have to learn to live alongside newcomers for whom religion is central to their identity.
"We’re going to survive as a country by bringing in people from different religions, and many times that is how they define themselves," he said. "Whether you think it’s a good thing or it’s a bad thing, it’s there, and you have to be respectful."
Robert Jackson, a professor of religious education at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom said the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a wake-up call for Europe.
"It has propelled the discussion of religion into the public sphere," he said. "We can no longer say that discussion about religion does not belong in the public sphere, and of course part of the public sphere is public education." One result, he said, was a 2007 Council of Europe report containing guiding principles for teaching about religion.
Even France, known for its secular schools and strict division of church and state, has recently opened the door for more religious content in the curriculum. Isabelle Saint-Martin of the Paris-based European Institute of Religious Sciences, recounted at the conference an anecdote about a popular children’s text used in French schools in the early 20th century.
Authorities at the time insisted that a character’s reference to his father being "in heaven" be changed to, "My father is dead." An exclamation of, "My God!" was changed to "Alas!" New French texts have created waves because they include excerpts from the Bible and depictions of Christ’s crucifixion, she said, as part of an explanation of the cultural significance of religions.
Moore, of Harvard, said religious content should be incorporated throughout the curriculum and not restricted to a single course. "Religion permeates all dimensions of human life," she said. She identified a wide range of problems caused by a lack of religious understanding, including anti-Semitism and the equation of Islam with violence and terrorism. She said it also leads to the portrayal of religion as "obsolete, irrational and oppressive."
Boudreau is optimistic the emerging generation is more open to studying religion. Strident secularism in Quebec was a product of the Quiet Revolution, when the province emerged from a period of church domination referred to by some as the great darkness.
"The kids aren’t there any more. They’re very curious, they’re very open," he said. "The religion classes at McGill are full. The students want to know more."