Here’s another example of religion in the news and the urgency of people becoming more religiously literate.
In this morning’s USA Today (“Muslim Teacher’s Lawsuit an Overreach”), scholar Stephen Prothero tells the story of a math teacher who has filed suit for religious discrimination, since her school district would not permit her to be gone for 19 days on a hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). I won’t delve into Professor Prothero’s judgments on the particulars of this case. You can read the piece yourself.
I’m most interested in how he ended his column: “Religious minorities must learn, in turn, that there are some cases where American law cannot accommodate them without infringing on the rights of others.” Dr. Prothero believes that the plaintiff will have to find a way to observe her religious dutiesthat does not infringe on the rights of other citizens. But do the rights of others legitimately limit the way a person practices her faith?
Adjudicating this complex question is a matter of high concern and the problem is, most of us don’t know what we’re talking about. Dr. Prothero goes straight at this problem in his most recent books, Religious Literacy  and God is Not One . If we don’t make some progress, the likelihood is that people ignorant of religion (judges) will make increasingly controversial (and unwise) decisions about how religious practices fit within the American constitutional framework.
This means that it is absolutely crucial that we find a way for religion(s) to come back into public conversations. So, what to do? For starters, every judge should have to engage in some serious tutorials on the beliefs, practices and cultural concerns of the world’s most populous religions. I’m not kidding. The job of a judge is to judge judicisouly. It is impossible to make good, sometimes precedent-setting, decisions about the dance between religious practice and the public good without adequate knowledge of religion(s), no matter how well a judge knows the law.
And what is needed for judges extends to the rest of us. Whereas I do not believe for a nanosecond that knowledge alone leads people to make good choices and act wisely, I do think that we pretty well guarantee bad outcomes with the institutionalized ignorance abundant in this country regarding religion(s). Yes, for starters, we’re going to have to find a way for religion(s) to re-enter our country’s educational system. And we might even have to consider some such requirement for college and university general education programs.
I know that my appeal goes in the opposite direction of conventional wisdom and it also means a change in long practice. Interpretations of the Constitution that in practice limit religious talk need to be re-thought. In more popular terms, we’re not supposed to discuss religion or politics in polite company, but that, too, is another piece of bad advice that has to go. If we don’t learn to talk and think about these things, we will be left with religiously ignorant people making bad, even dangerous, decisions. That is not a pretty picture.