Combat religious ignorance with theology class

by Stacey Oparnica

Artwork courtesy of staff artist Melodie Lapot

There is no Bible on my bedside table. I choose not to wear a hijab or drape a crucifix around my neck. I don’t live my life according to any sacred scriptures. Nor do I believe in a God. Because of my personal detachment from religion, people often assume I must know nothing about the history or message of their beliefs.

However, atheists such as myself are more likely to have a greater understanding of various religions and belief systems than those practicing religions, according to a Pew Research Center study. How is this possible? The answer sheds light on a grave and oppressive dilemma we rarely acknowledge, one that has propelled our nasty habit of baselessly generalizing and stereotyping others: religious ignorance.

The same study by the Pew Research Center perfectly clarified the embarrassing extent of this issue through its U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. The results are humiliating.

The average U.S. participant only answered 16 questions — or 50 percent — correctly. Forty-five percent of Catholic participants did not know the bread and wine they receive at Mass is believed to literally become the body and blood of Christ, a process known as transubstantiation in the Catholic religion. Just more than half of respondents knew the Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — is not one of the Ten Commandments of the Bible. Roughly half of Protestants were unable to identify Martin Luther as the man who instigated the Protestant Reformation. Less than half of respondents knew the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Lastly, 46 percent had no idea the Quran was the sacred book of Islam, the same religion 43 percent of Americans feel at least “a little” prejudiced toward, according to a 2010 Gallup Poll. How ironic.

How can something we know so little about have such a colossal influence on our country’s affairs and the mentality of its people? Take, for example, a 2004 study by the California Safe Schools Coalition, which revealed 46 percent of student participants reported facing harassment because of their religions, with 23 percent having been a victim four or more times. The unsettling effects the harassment had on the targeted students varied: 48 percent missed at least two weeks of class time because they felt depressed, 31 percent seriously considered suicide and 26 percent actually attempted it.

Evidently, our misinformed perceptions — as well as the repercussions that tend to follow — are the source of immense distress, confusion and pain for those targeted, whether we realize it or not. Ignorance is not bliss. Neither is apathy. We’ve already done the whole sitting on our asses routine. We’ve already made fun of the biking Mormon and the “Bible-hugging” Christian. And guess what? The ridiculous bantering, generalizing and stereotyping hasn’t produced any remarkable intellectual results.

Indifference clearly isn’t the answer. Knowledge is.

Last semester, I had the opportunity to take a world religions course, a class I assumed would be nothing short of a dreadful three-unit Bible study. However, as I sat through lecture after lecture, I quickly became entranced.

I visited a Buddhist temple and prayed with a monk. I gained a newfound respect for the message of Jesus Christ. I dug deeper into the fundamental teachings of Islam. I felt enlightened. Then I began to wonder: Why was such imperative information not available to me sooner? After all, when it comes to promoting acceptance and understanding, there couldn’t be a more essential and applicable class for students to have access to.

Even Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, stated that education was the “single best predictor” of how well people generally score on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Upon realizing this, I came to the conclusion that such a class should not be available only to college students, but should be offered to high schools students in public schools as well.

San Diego State freshman Carla De La Rosa is a living testament to the power of such an invaluable experience — after completing such a course, she anticipated changing her major to world religions.

“If I could have, I would have definitely taken this class earlier,” De La Rosa said.

While I understand including a religious studies course in the curriculum would not rid the world of faith-based prejudice or violence, it is a necessary step in ensuring the youth of this country don’t grow up to be as misinformed as American adults are today.

—Stacey Oparnica is a journalism sophomore.

—The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.