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Teaching Religious Literacy in California's Bible Belt

A Central California community has added a fourth "R" to the core curriculum in its public schools: Religion. Sociologist Emile Lester answers our questions about the experiment.
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A fourth "R" has been added to the core curriculum in the Modesto, Calif., public schools: Religion. In September 2000 — one year before the 9/11 attacks — this Central California community instituted a requirement that all ninth-graders complete a nine-week survey course on the world's religions. It is believed to be the first school system in the U.S. to make religious literacy mandatory for graduation. University of Virginia sociologist Emile Lester writes about this experiment in the journal Politics and Religion and in his new book Teaching about Religions, published by the University of Michigan Press.

How successful is this program? "The first thing we found in our research is that the course fulfilled its intended mission. We surveyed 400 students on three different occasions. We found that, after taking the course — it's a half-semester, preceded by a world geography course — students were more respectful of religion in general and more respectful of First Amendment rights. Teachers told stories about students being better equipped to talk about 9/11 after taking this course.


"I was told for a long time that this was the type of thing you cannot do. If you follow the headlines about religion and public education, you would think there are too many religious divisions among Americans to successfully teach religion in public schools. When we went to Modesto in 2005, it had been in place for five years without controversy. It has not led to any lawsuits or to any significant complaints from the community."

Back-to-School Basics

For a look at what public schools are doing to repair themselves on the cheap, check out the education stories found in the September-October 2011 issue of Miller-McCune, and when they'll be available on

Teacher Collaboration Gives Schools Better Results, August 22

What Would Diane Ravitch Say?, August 22

Chicago Charter Schools Aim to Lift Urban Education, August 23

Bad Teachers Improving With Help From Peers, August 24

Showing Where Community Colleges Pass, Fail, August 25

Bridging the Budget Gap with Stolen Lunch Money, August 25

Teaching Religious Literacy in California's Bible Belt, August 26

Teaching Kids to Love Nature (and Buy Less Stuff), August 26


How have they managed to walk the fine line of teaching the basic precepts of all major religions without offending the large population of fundamentalist Christians who live in the area? "First, at the time it was launched, they had a superintendent who had a lot of prestige in the community and was willing to take risks. Second, administrators convoked an advisory council of religious leaders in the community. This council reviewed the curriculum before it was put into effect. That really helped with community buy-in and pre-empted criticism of the course. Third, they use a 'just the facts ma'am,' approach. They focus on providing a historical overview of religions and described their major practices, rather than attempting to compare the merits of different religious viewpoints. I think that's crucial. Once you start comparing religions, questions of fairness and neutrality arise. That basic, factual approach was taught along with an emphasis on religious freedom."

How could the class be improved? "We call it a 'relative success.' My co-author, Patrick Roberts of Virginia Tech, and I discuss the idea of "active tolerance" — getting students not just to not discriminate but also to stand up to discrimination. We didn't see a lot of that [in our interviews with students]. To be fair, passive tolerance is a little more consistent with what the course was trying to do. Hopefully, public schools can at some point set their sights a little higher. Having a longer course would be one way to do that."

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