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Does God Make a Difference?Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities$

Warren Nord

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199766888

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199766888.001.0001

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Does God Measure Up to American Standards?

Does God Measure Up to American Standards?

(p.41) 2 Does God Measure Up to American Standards?
Does God Make a Difference?

Warren A. Nord

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter considers the question of whether God measure up to American standards. It begins by addressing high school standards and textbooks in three major areas of the curriculum: history, economics, and science. It concludes with an assessment of the role of religion in the undergraduate curriculum. There is no overt hostility to religion in the standards or in the high school textbooks. Indeed, the history standards and texts include a good deal about religion in the context of history. However, the texts and standards also demonstrate that students need to understand virtually nothing about religion to make sense of the world here and now. Not surprisingly, there are no national religion standards; nor are there required courses in religion in public schools and universities. Indeed, in most schools, and in the majority of public universities, there are no religion courses whatsoever. Thus, it appears that God doesn't measure up to American standards.

Keywords:   American public schools, American education, religion, religious studies, national standards, curriculum

What do students learn about God and religion in American schools and universities? The answer: not much.

Happily, there is a fairly straightforward way of determining whether God measures up to American standards in public schools, for there have been for more than a decade now national content standards for K–12 education. During the 1980s a consensus emerged among educators, business leaders, and politicians, that we—like the countries whose students appear to outperform ours—needed national standards. President George H. W. Bush and state governors said this at their 1989 Education Summit and before long the U.S. Congress called for “all students [to] leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.”1 Consequently, during the 1990s, content standards were written for twelve areas of the curriculum.

For all the initial enthusiasm, the idea of national standards was quickly caught up in a withering cross fire of criticism, with the fiercest fire coming from those who feared greater federal control over education. As a result, the momentum shifted, in time, to the states, most of which have now developed their own standards. Nonetheless, the national standards are helpful for my purposes because they are the work of thousands of scholars, teachers, and representatives of professional associations who, over a decade and (p.42) many drafts, refined what they took to be most important for students to learn about their respective fields. To some considerable extent, they continue to reflect the conventional wisdom of American education. I’ve also (for the third time) reviewed high school textbooks for their treatment of religion.2 Here we can put our hands on what students put their hands on (and perhaps even read). Not surprisingly, the textbooks sometimes give us more, sometimes less, than what the standards require.

It is easy to be cynical about textbooks. After all, who remembers anything they learned from textbooks? In her study of textbooks, Francis FitzGerald suggested that often what “sticks to the memory” is “not any particular series of facts but an atmosphere, an impression, a tone. And this impression may be all the more influential just because one cannot remember the facts and arguments that created it.” The responsibility of textbook authors and publishers, Fitzgerald suggests, is “awesome, for, as is not true of trade publishers, the audiences for their products are huge, impressionable, and captive.”3 Almost inevitably, textbooks give students some sense of what it is important and what is reasonable—and what isn’t.

I am aware that neither the standards nor the textbooks determine what goes on in the classroom. Good teachers will often supplement (even correct) bad textbooks and inadequate standards. Of course. Still, looking at the standards and texts will give us some idea of what students are taught, and of widely shared ideals of what they should be taught.

I will address high school standards and textbooks in three major areas of the curriculum—history, economics, and science—and I’ll say just a little about the rest of the curriculum. I’ll also mention public school religion courses; there aren’t many, so not much need be said.

I’ll conclude with an assessment of the role of religion in the undergraduate curriculum. There are no national standards there; nor are there any obviously relevant textbooks to look at. Still, we are not without evidence—though my assessment will inevitably be somewhat more impressionistic.


I reviewed the national standards for both world and U.S. history (detailed documents that run, respectively, 284 and 245 pages) and eight widely used world history and American history textbooks (which average a little more than a thousand pages and seven pounds).

The standards are presented in the form of chronological outlines. Within each historical period there will be several general standards, with more (p.43) specific “elaborated standards” and “illustrations” falling under them. Though any estimate will be rough at best, religion comes into play (in some way) in about 10 percent of the world history standards, and something under 5 percent of the American history standards.

The history texts also say a good deal about religion. Moreover, they’re getting somewhat better. I remember a text from the 1980s that was so skittish about religion that in reprinting the Mayflower Compact it replaced all references to God with ellipses marks. Some of this progress has been, I suspect, a response to several highly publicized reviews that pointed out their shortcomings with regard to religion. Still, none of the high school textbooks I’ve reviewed have measured up to what the standards require. A part of the reason is that the standards are so comprehensive that no textbook could possibly satisfy them. Indeed, the authors of the standards recognize this, arguing that more time and courses must be devoted to the study of history. (I agree.)

My primary conclusion, however, is that both the standards and the texts fall well short of the ideal when it comes to religion. How so?

(1) Given everything that must be crammed into the texts, there simply isn’t space to make religion intelligible. World history texts typically devote about three pages (including pictures and charts) to explaining the origins, basic teachings, and early development of each of the great world religions. Three pages won’t do it. Unless students come to history classes already knowing a good deal about various religions, they will not learn enough to actually make any sense of them.

(2) The standards and the textbooks understate the importance of religion in the modern world. Religion largely, though not entirely, disappears from both the world and the American history standards and texts as we page past the seventeenth century. No doubt the modern world is more secular than the premodern world, though students might well conclude from the texts that the world has became almost completely secular. One reason for this is that the texts focus largely on military, political, and social history, all of which became considerably more secular after the seventeenth century. In discussing the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all the texts have occasional chapters on culture (both high and popular), but religion does not usually figure into these chapters either, and there are no parallel chapters addressing religion specifically. Rather, with very few exceptions, religious movements and issues are given only a paragraph or two here and there.

Roughly 5 percent of the American and world history standards for the twentieth century address religion in some way (though few focus exclusively or even primarily on religion). In her thorough study of state history and social studies standards Susan L. Douglass concludes that “with some exceptions, (p.44) very little content on religion is written into state world history standards for the period after 1800 in European history, and after 1500 in non-Western cultures. All students will have been exposed to information about the role of religion in American history before 1800, but they will receive little additional information during their studies of 19th and 20th century US history.”4 If we exclude the Holocaust, which is typically discussed in some depth, the texts devote, on average, between 1 percent and 2 percent of their space to religion in covering the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Again excluding the Holocaust, one American history text devotes more pages to railroads in the nineteenth century than to religion in all of the twentieth century; another gives more pages to consumerism in the 1950s than to all of religion in the twentieth century; yet another devotes twice as much space to popular culture at the beginning of the twentieth century (baseball, vaudeville, shopping) as it does to religion for the whole century.

(3) Perhaps because of the frequent focus on military and political history, when religion is mentioned it is typically for its contribution to violence or conflict. In order of the space given them in the texts here are the ten most commonly discussed topics relating to religion in the twentieth century: the Holocaust, the Iranian revolution, religious conflict in the partition of India, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism (9/11, Al Qaeda, the Taliban), anti-Semitism in turn-of-the-century Europe (the Dreyfus affair, pogroms), Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, the creation of Israel and religious conflict in the Middle East, the rise of the New Religious Right in the United States, the Scopes Trial, and evangelical revivalism in the early twentieth-century United States (Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday). True, other topics are mentioned, but they receive only the usual paragraph or two (or sentence or two) here and there.

In her (more general) review of history textbooks Diane Ravitch notes that the discussion of religion is often unduly favorable, and in several reviews of history textbooks Gilbert Seawell has argued that the treatment of Islam is uncritically sympathetic (Seawell has been challenged, in turn, by the Council for Islamic Education).5 In fact, several of the texts I read appeared wary of discussing any relationship between Islam and terrorism. Of course, what counts as a fair or objective treatment of religion is controversial, even among scholars. But the problem is made much more difficult in light of the intense pressure of religious groups for favorable treatment in textbooks on profit-conscious publishers and politically sensitive boards of education. (This isn’t always bad: sometimes mistakes and stereotypes surface in the process.) And we cannot forget that the pervasive ethos of multiculturalism makes it politically incorrect to say anything critical of almost any group. Having (p.45) acknowledged all of this, it is still true that the texts encourage students to think of religion in the twentieth century largely in the context of war and they typically fail to give religion its due as a cause of peace and justice. For example, in addressing civil rights the texts say little about the black church and religion. They typically attribute Martin Luther King Jr.'s views on nonviolence to his study of Thoreau and Gandhi, and say nothing of his grounding in Christian theology. Indeed, two texts don’t mention that he was a minister or make any reference to his religious beliefs; one of them identifies him as Dr. King five times, but never as Rev. King.

(4) There is virtually no discussion of the intellectual or theological dimensions of religion in the twentieth century (and little before that). It is true that the world history standards note that “the major religions have continued to grow and change dynamically. Spiritual quests and ethical questionings have been a vital part of the cultural history of the past [i.e., twentieth] century.”6 Still, the texts and the standards largely freeze the theological development of Christianity in the Reformation, while other religions are frozen much earlier in their classical shapes. As a result, students are given little sense of how religious traditions have responded intellectually to modernity and, inevitably, they appear to be fossilized remnants of the past.

An exception to this generalization is that both the standards and the texts discuss (if only briefly) the resistance of fundamentalism to modernity in the twentieth century. In the only explicit reference to the tension between modernity and religion in the U.S. standards, students are required to understand Christian fundamentalism and the “clash between traditional moral values and changing ideas as exemplified in the controversy over Prohibition and the Scopes Trial” (two of the less successful religious responses to modernity). This is also the theme of the textbook accounts of the Scopes Trial (found in all four American histories). Liberal responses to modernity are considerably less common. The Social Gospel movement in the early twentieth century receives a standard two paragraphs in each of the American histories. Liberation theology is mentioned in two of the eight texts, and one text mentions the rise of spirituality and New Age religion. Two of the eight texts mention modern biblical scholarship. Astonishingly, only two of the eight texts mention the Second Vatican Council, arguably the most important Christian event since the Reformation—it is given a single sentence in one text, a paragraph in the second—and it is not mentioned in either the world or the U.S. history standards.

Theologians are conspicuous by their absence from the standards and texts. Karl Barth, the most influential Christian theologian of the twentieth century, is mentioned in only one of the eight texts (a short paragraph). (p.46) Reinhold Niebuhr, the most influential American theologian of the twentieth century is not mentioned in either the texts or standards (though the rabble-rousing Father Coughlin is mentioned in all four American histories). Paul Tillich is mentioned only as an émigré from Nazi Germany. Other than a single passing reference to John XXIII, no pope is mentioned other than John Paul II, who is mentioned for his influence on politics. There is no discussion of the new science/religion dialogue, ecotheology, or feminist theology. Though the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s is discussed in the American histories, it is for its influence on politics; conservative and evangelical theology is not discussed. There is no mention of Martin Buber, Abraham Heschel, or any Jewish theologian.

(5) It goes without saying that the standards and the texts assume that history is a secular discipline and that history should be interpreted in secular categories. In addressing “thinking skills” the standards are sensitive to the fact that there are multiple interpretations of history. They rightly require that students appreciate the “interpretative nature” of history as a discipline, and are able to compare “alternative historical narratives written by historians who have given different weight to the political, economic, social, and/or technological causes of events and who have developed competing interpretations of the significance of those events.”7 What students are not required to do is consider historical narratives written by scholars who interpret history in religious categories. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (unlike Eastern religions) have each held that God acts in history, that history has a religious plotline. Whether or not one interprets such talk literally (as religious conservatives do) or mythically (as religious liberals are apt to do) there is a religious meaning to history that cannot be conveyed in secular categories. The standards make no note of this fact so central to understanding Western religion.

Of course the chronological periodization of history is secular. Each of the four world history texts explains the source of our dating system—what B.C. and A.D. (or B.C.E. and C.E.) mean, always in a single sentence, mentioning that the birth of Jesus was traditionally ascribed to the year 1—but that's it. So what is the significance of this? For Christians, Jesus is God incarnate—no small matter. Indeed, God's incarnation into this world is the turning point in the unfolding drama of human history. (Interestingly, none of the world histories that I’ve reviewed mention this claim about Jesus—that Christians believe that he was God.) Nor does the birth of Jesus make any difference at all in the way the texts divide history up into periods. The omnipresent time lines in the texts suggest that nothing hinges on the break between B.C. and A.D. That is, students are taught to conceive of the shape of history in secular rather than (p.47) sacred categories. Of course, one could make parallel arguments regarding the calendars and theology of Judaism and Islam.

While it is widely acknowledged that students must learn something about religion in the course of studying history, we typically take this to mean that some mention of religious leaders, movements, and institutions should be incorporated into our historical narratives, but of course those narratives must be secular narratives. Indeed, our standards of historical evidence, our conceptions of historical causation, our interpretations of the meaning of history are, like historical periodization, entirely secular. So while students will learn something about religion in the course of studying history, we teach them how to think about religion in secular historical terms; we don’t teach them how to think about history religiously.

(6) The world history standards require students to understand eleven “long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history,” all of which are drawn from social, technological, and political history (e.g., population changes from paleolithic times to the present, the origins and development of capitalism, the origins and development of the nation-state); none are religious. Three of the eight texts end with discussions of broad historical themes; only one includes a religious theme—a worldwide return to traditional religious beliefs and rituals that sometimes takes the form of fundamentalism. It would appear that the long-term historical significance of religion is marginal at best.

In sum, then, if students take a course in world history they will learn a good deal about religion in premodern history, though far less than what they need to know to actually make sense of it. (It is worth keeping in mind that not all states require high school students to take world history.) Students will learn a little about religion over the last two centuries, usually in the context of understanding conflict, violence, and war, but they will learn nothing at all about theology or the intellectual development of religion. And they will learn to interpret history in secular categories. When educators have attempted to take religion more seriously, it has typically resulted in mentioning it a little more often; they have not recognized the importance of enabling students to understand the events and themes of history from religious perspectives.


The sole reference to religion in the forty-seven pages of the National Content Standards in Economics refers to religious organizations as one among several types of nonprofit organizations. There are three references to religion in the (p.48) four economics texts I reviewed most recently: the first, a quotation from Isaiah (“They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks”) appears in a one-paragraph box on eco hotels; the second is a three-paragraph description of President Bush's faith-based initiative on welfare programs; the third is a reference to “religious beliefs” along with rituals, habits, and laws in shaping traditional economies. That's it. If I throw in the ten economics texts that I reviewed in the 1990s, the cumulative references to religion total less than three out of 6,700 pages. In these fourteen economic texts the only reference to religion after the Protestant Reformation is the three-paragraph account of President Bush's faith-based initiative.


Even more striking is the fact that the standards never make moral judgments or discuss morality. They make no reference to unions, social classes, the environment, materialism, poverty, justice, rights, codes of ethics, or the dignity of human beings. In fact, the standards are ahistorical, apolitical, and amoral.

The texts rarely consider morality explicitly. I’ll mention all the references. Three of the texts have boxes that briefly discuss codes of ethics (in two cases a part of the argument is that such codes make good business sense). One text calls on consumers to act ethically by respecting the rights of sellers. Another defines “moral suasion” as the unofficial pressure that the Federal Reserve places on the banking system. Yet another discusses the “moral hazard” of behaving irresponsibly when one has insurance.

Occasionally, the texts appear to make implicit moral judgments. For example, two texts have boxes that feature Oprah Winfrey, both emphasizing her generosity to the needy. Two of the texts mention humanitarian motives for foreign aid—albeit, in passing. Three of the texts have a short historical section that describes the horrible working conditions that gave rise to the union movement in the United States. Another notes that “as a society, we recognize some responsibilities to the very young, the very old, the sick, the poor, and the disabled” in the context of a discussion of welfare programs.8 The texts will sometimes refer to the fact that Americans value economic freedom or economic efficiency, or fairness, or equal pay for equal work. But there is never any effort to explain or to morally justify such empirical generalizations, or to consider whether people are reasonable to have such values.

The texts address at some length morally loaded issues such as taxes and poverty. For example, each of the texts distinguishes three types of taxes: flat, progressive, and regressive. Only one of the texts provides any context for (p.49) thinking about which is fairer, however, devoting several paragraphs to the difference between the “benefits-received” and the “ability to pay” principles that underlie different theories of taxation. Unfortunately, these principles remain abstractions; the discussion is brief and leaves the principles floating free of any kind of moral, political, or religious context or theory. Or, to take another example, the texts all discuss poverty, presenting considerable information (often by way of graphs and charts) documenting the extent and causes of poverty and inequality. But again, the texts provide no moral, political, or religious context for thinking about poverty as a moral or spiritual problem about which something ought to be done.

Neo-Classical Theory

So why is this? The problem is that the disciplinary framework that shapes the standards and the texts is neoclassical economic theory, according to which economics is a value-free science, people are essentially self-interested utility maximizers, and values are personal preferences. Economics is one thing, while religion and morality are something else.

The commitment to neoclassical theory is explicit in the standards. In the texts, it is more implicit, though the texts typically make it clear that economics is a social science and, as such, it is value-free. As one text puts it, “Learning about economics will help you predict what may happen if certain events occur or certain policies are followed. But economics will not tell you whether the results will be good or bad. Judgments about results depend on a person's values.”9 Nowhere do the standards or the texts suggest that people can have right or wrong values. Values are subjective preferences.

Ever since Adam Smith, economists have believed that self-interest makes the economic world go round, and Smith's “invisible hand” is still to be seen (in a manner of speaking) in the standards and the texts. According to the standards, people “usually pursue their self-interest.”10 The texts typically introduce the idea of self-interest (and the profit motive) in the context of discussing Smith. One text notes that the discipline of economics simplifies behavior, and it will assume that people act out of self-interest and make informed decisions. While neither the standards nor the texts insist that all action is self-interested, they show no interest whatever in altruism or compassion. When is it good to overcome self-interest? They aren’t interested. (Studies by economists show that students who study neoclassical theory become more self-interested as a result of their coursework.11)

Needless to say, it is all but impossible to maintain some sense of justice or right and wrong when all preferences are merely subjective (and assumed to be (p.50) self-interested) and we think about everything in cost-benefit terms. In theory (and, as a result, almost inevitably in practice) the Bible and pornography become interchangeable consumer goods. The Sabbath and religious holidays cannot be kept holy, for there is no such thing as sacred time. Advertising plays on themes of sexuality, power, and greed in ways that corrupt human dignity and the sacredness of life. All religions, by contrast, hold that preferences may be intrinsically bad, and that we have duties that are not subject to the kind of weighing that is integral to cost-benefit analysis.

So should we teach students about alternatives to neoclassical theory? The standards provide a clear answer: students should be taught only the “majority paradigm” or “neo-classical model” of economic behavior, for to include “strongly held minority views of economic processes risks confusing and frustrating teachers and students who are then left with the responsibility of sorting the qualifications and alternatives without a sufficient foundation to do so.”12 We certainly don’t want to confuse teachers or students with alternatives.

The texts are somewhat less narrow in this regard than the standards. For example, they each have short sections on Marxism and socialism, contrasting centrally planned with market economies; one even discusses Swedish socialism. One wonders why they can’t also have short sections on religious ways of thinking about economics, or on philosophical theories of morality and justice. One response, from Robert Duvall, president of the National Council on Economic Education (which issued the standards), is that parents and educators fear that the study of economics might be politicized and will prove controversial; hence he has reassured us that the study of economics need have no ideological content.13 So neoclassical theory isn’t controversial?

Other Issues

There are a number of issues that are of particular concern to people within religious traditions that are either ignored, slighted, or discussed only in the narrow amoral categories of neoclassical theory. As I noted in the last chapter, every religious tradition has placed special emphasis on compassion, justice, and the duty to help the poor and oppressed. Neither the standards nor the texts give any weight to the needs of the poor or discuss poverty as a moral or spiritual problem; nor do they discuss economic or social justice. While three of the texts have substantial sections, running from thirty pages to several chapters, on personal finances (getting a job, writing checks, saving money, buying a car, renting an apartment, paying taxes, buying insurance, etc.) there is no mention in any of the texts (or in the standards) of charitable giving.

(p.51) Virtually all religious traditions condemn contemporary consumer culture for nurturing attachments to wealth and the material goods of this life. Of course the economic system thrives by nurturing our acquisitiveness, creating stronger (and new) desires for consumer goods, requiring that we devote ever more time and energy to economic pursuits. Needless to say, the texts and the standards are silent about these concerns. One text has a box asking “Does Money Buy Happiness?” Students are told that surveys suggest that if everything is held equal, the more money one has the happier one is (a dubious proposition according to much other research). It also tells students that a “stable marriage” is worth approximately $100,000 in terms of “equivalent reported satisfaction.”14 (Hmm.)

It is now widely held that the effects of economic growth on the environment have become catastrophic—an increasing concern of our religious traditions. The texts and the standards ignore the implications of economic growth on nature and say nothing about the moral problem of sustainable growth.

From within all religious traditions, work must be understood in moral and spiritual as well as in economic terms, but the standards say nothing about this. While the texts do say something about inhumane conditions of work historically (albeit briefly) in discussing the rise of unions, they have nothing to say about contemporary concerns about the meaningfulness and dignity of work, or about thinking of vocations as callings.

I want to be clear that the problem isn’t necessarily that theologians and economists take different positions on any particular issue. Nor is it a matter of Left-Right politics. If the standards are fairly uncritical of market economies, the texts often provide information that is grist for criticism (at least for those who have eyes to see). Rather, the problem is that economics texts and courses teach students to conceive all of economics in entirely secular, nonmoral categories. They don’t do anything to help students think in an informed and critical way about the moral and spiritual dimensions of the economic domain of life. They do nothing to locate students in moral, political, or religious traditions that might guide their value judgments, and they totally ignore the rich literature of the last hundred years on economics and moral theology. In fact, as things now stand, schools don’t teach the subject of economics, for subjects are open to various interpretations. Rather, they teach economics as a discipline, a particular way of thinking—that found in neoclassical economic theory—and they do so completely uncritically, without informing students that there are alternatives.

It is hard to reconcile the interpretation of human nature, values, and economics found in the texts and the national standards with that of any (p.52) religious tradition, and there can be little doubt that the way we conceive of economics contributes to the growing secularization and demoralization of our economic life. We should not be surprised when the sociologist Robert Wuthnow reports that when “asked if their religious beliefs had influenced their choice of a career, most of the people I have interviewed in recent years—Christians and non-Christians alike—said no. Asked if they thought of their work as a calling, most said no. Asked if they understood the concept of stewardship, most said no. Asked how religion did influence their work lives or thoughts about money, most said the two were completely separate.”15


There is no discussion of the relationship of science and religion in the 262 pages of the National Science Education Standards, although the standards do say that “explanations on [sic] how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.”16 The standards also acknowledge that “science is only one way of answering questions and explaining the natural world”—but they don’t say anything about any alternatives.17

Each of the eight textbooks I reviewed most recently (four in biology, four in physics) has a short opening chapter on scientific method. Each of these chapters is depressingly perfunctory. The longest discussion of the relationship of science and religion is two short paragraphs in a physics textbook, which claims that science and religion have different domains: the domain of science is the natural order; the domain of religion is nature's purpose. Although it appears contradictory to claim that light is both a wave and a particle, physicists know that waves and particles complement each other. Similarly, although “science and religion are as different as apples and oranges” they “complement rather than contradict each other.”18 A second (biology) text notes that because science requires natural causes all appeals to supernatural causes are out of bounds. A third acknowledges that science cannot disprove the existence of unobservable or supernatural forces. A fourth text simply says that “some questions are simply not in the realm of science. Such questions may involve decisions regarding good versus evil, ugly versus beautiful, or similar judgments.”19 That's it.

There is not a hint in any of the eight texts or the standards of the existence of the new science/religion dialogue of the last few decades.

(p.53) Evolution

Each of the biology texts discusses Darwinian evolution at length, running through the major scientific arguments for evolution. None discusses the historical conflict over design in evolution. One does note in passing that “Darwin's book raised a storm of controversy in both religion and science, some of which still lingers.”20 No text says anything about the absence of design in neo-Darwinism, although one acknowledges that “modern evolutionary theory now recognizes that evolution does not move toward more ‘perfect’ states, not even necessarily toward greater complexity.”21 None of the texts discusses the relationship of religion and evolution.

While the national standards are clear that evolution is the “central unifying theory” of modern biology, the state standards (forty-nine of fifty states haves science standards) are not always so clear. According to Edward Larson, “By 2000, every state (except Iowa) had adopted some form of science standards that at least addressed the topic of biological evolution (though a few avoid using the word itself).”22 In its study of state biology standards, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation noted that some states downplay the centrality of evolution as a unifying explanatory theory, others fail to give adequate attention to geological evolution, and most state standards don’t mention the place of human beings in biological evolution. As a result, it gave eleven states failing grades, and found that only about two-thirds of the states have adequate standards.23 Several states have recently considered changing their science standards to acknowledge criticisms of evolution, Kansas, most prominently. (The Fordham study gave Kansas an F- for its efforts.) No doubt evolution continues to be controversial. At the same time, no state requires any discussion of creationism, Intelligent Design theory, theistic evolution, or any religious interpretation of nature.

Other Issues

The big bang is discussed in three of the four physics texts, but none of them says anything about philosophical or religious arguments regarding it (though one does discuss the idea of an eternally oscillating universe). None of the texts mentions the evidence for cosmological fine-tuning.

All four of the biology texts acknowledge that scientists do not yet understand the origins of life, though none of them makes anything philosophically or religiously of this. Each suggests at least implicitly that a scientific explanation is forthcoming. One text does include a box that briefly describes four (p.54) theories about the origins of life, one of them being divine origins: “Many of the world's major religions teach that life was created on Earth by a supreme being. The followers of these religions believe that life could only have arisen through the direct action of a divine force. A variation of this belief is that organisms are too complex to have developed only evolution. Instead, some people believe that the complex structures and processes of life could not have formed without some guiding intelligence.”24 This is the only reference to Intelligent Design (or design of any kind) in any of the texts.

Although each of the biology texts has several chapters on the development of the nervous system and brain, none says anything about the philosophical or theological problems relating to the development of consciousness or mind. Interesting, in the last chapter (titled “Frontiers”) of a physics text the authors note that “the most amazing thing in the history of universe, at least from our perspective” is when life and people come to be, and “the characteristic of human beings that seems most different from inanimate matter includes consciousness and the realization of emotion, including love. Perhaps the reductionist view does not apply to systems as complex as living creatures. If not, why not? Whatever the ultimate answer, it will be fascinating to discover.”25 Yes, this is an interesting question. Unfortunately, we learn nothing more about the dangers of reductionism or the origins of love.

Three of four biology texts have short sections (from several paragraphs to two pages) relating to the development of altruism in animals, explaining it in terms of kin or reciprocal selection. None addresses morality or altruism (or love) in human beings.

None of the texts addresses the question of free will and determinism.

Although all of the biology texts have several chapters on the environment and ecology, none addresses the extensive literature on spirituality, religion, and ecology.

All of the references to religion added together come to less than 1 page out of 7,356 in the eight science texts. The texts certainly don’t attack religion; indeed, they often pull their punches, probably to avoid controversy. They betray no doubt that science will solve currently unsolved problems (such as the origins of life). They ignore the Big Questions science raises and the immense literature on the relationship of science and religion of the last several decades. One reason this is possible is that although the texts occasionally provide a little historical or biographical context in discussing great scientists or changing formulations of important theories, the texts don’t teach science historically. The assumption clearly is that the purpose of science education is to teach students what contemporary scientists believe to be good science, not to teach science in historical, cultural, or philosophical context.

(p.55) Other Subjects


The National Standards for the English Language Arts bury three essentially incidental and passing references to religion and religious literature in an extended and largely indiscriminate discussion of lab manuals, reference materials, journals, computer software, databases, films, television, newspapers, speeches, editorials, advertisements, letters, bulletin board notices, and signs.26 In fact, only two of twelve standards deal with literature. The second of these emphasizes the importance of literature in illuminating the ethical and philosophical dimensions of experience; this might be taken to provide an opening for religious literature, but the standards let the opportunity slip by. The standards show no overt hostility to religion or religious literature; they just ignore it.

Happily, the textbooks aren’t so indifferent to religious literature.27 Needless to say, the use of primary sources in literature anthologies has the potential of giving students greater insight into religion than the dry prose and endless facts of narrative history textbooks. Also, high school anthologies that organize world literature, British literature, and American literature by historical periods typically include a fair amount of religious literature—at least up to the nineteenth century when, after Romanticism and Transcendentalism, they pretty much lose sight of religion. Most literature anthologies for younger students are not organized historically, however, but by themes or genres, and anthologize literature drawn primarily from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that is almost always secular.

While the world literature anthologies include selections from the sacred scriptures of many religious traditions, the selections are invariably short, taken out of context, and are chosen more for their literary than theological significance. The standard selections from the Bible are the creation narratives in Genesis, the story of Noah, the book of Ruth, several psalms, and one or two parables of Jesus. Altogether the biblical selections total about twenty pages of text (with pictures)—about half of the forty pages typically given to Homer's Iliad (in textbooks that run between 1,200 and 1,400 pages). Excerpts from the Qur’an total two pages on average. More pages are devoted to Asian religious texts, although again, the individual selections are always brief (typically a page or two). The British literature texts also include two pages or so of excerpts from the King James Bible.

Of course, many of the selections from premodern times address religious themes, and selections from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will sometimes use religious imagery and grapple with existential, even spiritual, (p.56) themes (albeit not usually in overtly religious categories). So, for example, the world literature texts all include (the same) four cantos from Dante's Inferno, and the British literature anthologies give a relatively generous ten pages, on average, to Milton's Paradise Lost. Jonathan Edwards's sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is in all the American literature textbooks—as is King's “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (usually edited down). Two of the American literature texts included Arthur Miller's The Crucible (about an episode that is not one of the high points of the Christian tradition) in its entirety. The world and the American texts typically include some Holocaust literature (usually fairly brief excerpts from Elie Wiesel's Night or Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz).

Still, there are, I suggest, three major problems for our purposes. First, the selections are too brief for students to make much sense of them or of the religious traditions within which the texts are written. Second, students will learn little about religion over the last century or two. Third, most teachers will be unable to provide religious (as opposed to more narrowly secular literary) contexts for, and interpretations of, the selections they assign.


The National Standards for Civics and Government are the most sensitive of all the content standards for religion in the contemporary world. They require, for example, that students understand different conceptions of the relationship of God to law (theories of natural rights, for example), the importance of religious liberty and the meaning of the religion clauses of the First Amendment, the impact of religious pluralism on American politics, the role of religion in creating conflict in the United States and in the rest of the world, and ways in which religion can challenge allegiances to the nation. Unfortunately, like the history standards, the civics standards are so comprehensive that their emphasis on religion is almost inevitably lost as textbook authors and teachers decide what to discuss in the limited time and space they have.

In fact, the four civics texts I reviewed fell far short of the standards in spite of their length (on average over five hundred pages). Three devoted several paragraphs to discussing religion and religious liberty in the colonies. While each quoted the passage from the Declaration of Independence saying that we are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” none saw fit to comment on the significance of this reference to a Creator, and none discussed the religious background of conceptions of natural law or natural rights. Each discussed the religion clauses of the First Amendment, three utterly superficially, one in some detail. And each had a paragraph or (p.57) two on some contemporary issue having to do with religion in American public life (religious schools, faith-based social services, or the correlation of religion with voting and political parties). The four texts gave, on average, less than 1 percent of their space to religion.28

Courses on/in Ethics, Morality, and Religion

In spite of the importance we attach to morality, there are no (or very, very few) high school courses in ethics or morality. There are character education programs in many schools—usually in the lower grades—most of which ignore religion as too controversial. (I’ll say more about character education in chapter 12.)

According to one recent survey, about 8 percent of high schools offer courses in the Bible, but they are always elective courses, and few students take them. I don’t know the number of schools that offer courses in world religions, but my impression is that they are less common than Bible courses (and, with only one exception that I know of, they too are always electives).29 I suspect that at most, 1 percent of public high school students take a course in religion. I’ll have much more to say about Bible and world religions courses in chapter 10.

Higher Education

It is difficult to say with any precision how God fares in higher education. There are no national standards at that level; nor have there been any studies of how religion is treated in college textbooks. There are, however, four reasons to think the situation may not be as bleak as in public schools.

First, university faculty members are not bound by state-adopted curricula and textbooks written by educators and policy makers who are tone deaf to religion; nor do they usually need to worry about how controversial it might be to include religion in the discussion. To some considerable extent they are collectively free to define their own curricula, and individually free, because of academic freedom, to shape their own courses and choose their own texts. Second, there are at most colleges and universities a scattering of courses that address religion in some depth: courses in the philosophy of religion or the sociology of religion, for example, and courses in classics, history, literature, and political science may also address religious issues, traditions, and movements. Third, many colleges and universities have departments of religious studies, which enable students to study various (p.58) religions in some depth. Fourth, when students do take courses in which they study religion, they are more likely to read primary sources written from within religious traditions—this is not usually the case in high schools apart from literature courses—and this, as we shall see, is critical if religion is to be taken seriously.

This said, we still can’t be too sanguine. Why?

I don’t doubt that there are some undergraduate courses (apart from religion courses) in which students take religion seriously, but I suspect there aren’t many. In my undergraduate philosophy of religion course I have often asked my students, usually juniors and seniors, a series of questions. How many of you have had a psychology course? Most hands go up. Did any of your professors ever discuss the soul or sin? No hands. How many of you have had a biology class? Most hands go up. Did any of your professors discuss the possibility of purpose in nature? No hands. How many of you have had a business or economics course? Most hands go up. Did any of your professors ever discuss the importance of love or religious conceptions of justice? No hands. How many of you have had a history course? All hands go up. Did any of your professors ever discuss the possibility that there is a religious meaning to history? No hands. I’ll say a good deal in chapters to come about why religion comes up so rarely; here I simply note this no doubt unsurprising fact.30

What about courses in the philosophy, sociology, or psychology of religion? First, they are relatively rare; second, they are always electives; and third, very few students take them. Moreover, such courses are often reductionistic in the sense that they interpret or explain religion in terms of the host discipline (psychology, sociology, anthropology, or philosophy), which always employs secular categories to make sense of its subject matter. Consequently, students are less likely to learn how to make sense of the world religiously than they will be to learn how to make sense of religion psychologically or anthropologically (or whatever).

But don’t departments of religious studies ensure that students at least have the opportunity to study religion in depth? In some places, yes; in others, no. In fact, departments of religious studies are still the exception rather than the rule in public universities. According to a 2000 survey of undergraduate departments of religious studies and theology conducted by the American Academy of Religion (AAR), about 40 percent of colleges and universities have such departments (about half of which are “combined” departments, often with philosophy).31 Unfortunately, the study doesn’t break down the numbers by public/private, but it is safe to say smaller, private, religiously affiliated schools are more likely to have such departments, while (p.59) public colleges and universities (which enroll more than three-quarters of all undergraduates) are less likely to.32 It is true that in the wake of 9/11, some universities—including several large public universities—have added departments of religion. So at the outside, perhaps 40 percent of public universities now have some kind of curriculum in, or department of, religious studies. We need to keep in mind, of course, that coursework in religious studies in public universities is virtually always elective.33 I don’t know of any statistics regarding what percentage of undergraduates will take an elective course in religious studies; I’ll (generously) guess that half do. So (roughly) 20 percent of undergraduates at public universities will take a single course in religious studies.

But there's a further consideration. Some of these courses will be highly specialized, and many of them will address religion in narrowly historical contexts, more or less as historical or sociological artifacts. Sometimes what students learn from a course in religious studies is that scholars can make sense of religion in secular categories (be they historical, psychological, anthropological, or sociological), not that religious ways of making sense of the world should be taken seriously here and now. In such cases, religion is kept at arm's length. Not always by any means, but often.

Where does this leave us? I will suggest that about 10 percent of undergraduates in public universities take a course in which religious ways of making sense of the world are taken seriously. It is true that in courses in religious studies, and occasionally in courses in other disciplines, students will read primary sources and or scholarly texts written by theologians or religious writers who take religion seriously. But the great majority of undergraduates will never be required to read such a book.34

Might students encounter religion in ethics courses? Such courses are typically electives, though some universities now require a course in ethics or moral reasoning. In public universities ethics courses are almost always taught in philosophy departments, however, and my review of ethics anthologies reveals little religious literature. While Augustine or Aquinas may appear in anthologies in the history of ethics, it is unlikely that theologians or religious ethicists of the last two hundred years will appear. It is true that anthologies in applied ethics may use a religious text or two in surveying positions dealing with abortion, but this is rare in dealing with other issues.

We shouldn’t be surprised when Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life at Boston College, notes that “universities, shaped by faculty priorities, are hands down the most secular institutions in American Society.”35

(p.60) Conclusions

There are, of course, private schools and religiously affiliated colleges where students are required to study religion in some depth, but most students do not attend them. So what do most students learn about religion in schools and universities? Does God measure up to American standards?

There is no overt hostility to religion in the standards or in the high school textbooks. Indeed, the history standards and texts include a good deal about religion in the context of history. But the texts and standards also demonstrate that students need to understand virtually nothing about religion to make sense of the world here and now.

Not surprisingly, there are no national religion standards; nor are there required courses in religion in public schools and universities. Indeed, in most schools, and in the majority of public universities, there are no religion courses whatsoever.

I suspect that for the great majority of American students in secondary schools and universities, less than 1 percent of the content of their education will deal with religion. Most of what they learn about religion will be in the context of distant times and places. They will learn nothing about modern theology or the place of religion in contemporary intellectual life. They will not be taught that God doesn’t exist, but they will inevitably learn to interpret whatever they study in secular categories. They will not unreasonably conclude that God is irrelevant to the subjects they study, to how they understand the world, and to how they live their lives. They will certainly not learn to take religion seriously.

So it would appear that God doesn’t measure up to American standards.

We will see how this came to be in chapter 3.


(1.) Education Week (April 12, 1995): Special Report, 5.

(2.) I have conducted three reviews of high school textbooks, the first of texts published in the late 1980s, the second of texts published in the mid-1990s, and most recently of texts published between 2003 and 2006. In all, I’ve reviewed more than one hundred high school textbooks in history, literature, biology, physics, economics, and health.

(3.) Frances FitzGerald, America Revised (New York: Vintage, 1980), 18, 27.

(4.) Susan L. Douglass, Teaching about Religion in National and State Social Studies Standards (Fountain Valley, Calif.: Council on Islamic Education; Nashville: First Amendment Center, 2000), 88.

(5.) See Diane Ravitch, The Language Police (New York: Vintage, 2003). For Seawell's reviews see the Web site of the American Textbook Council at http://www.historytextbooks.org/islam.htm. For the response of the Council for Islamic Education see www.cie.org/news/SewallResponse.asp.

(6.) National Standards for World History (Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, 1994), 245. The Standards suggest that students “debate the proposition that the late 20th century is a time of religious ferment and vitality in the world” (283). There is no correlative standard for American history.

(7.) National Standards for World History, 17.

(8.) Prentice Hall Economics (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentic Hall, 2003), 68. My emphasis.

(9.) Glencoe Economics: Today and Tomorrow (New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2003), 23.

(10.) National Council on Economics Education, National Content Standards in Economics (New York, 1997), 8.

(11.) Robert H. Frank, Thomas Gilovich, and Dennis T. Regan, “Does Studying Economics Inhibit Cooperation?” Journal of Economic Perspectives 7 (Spring 1993): 159–71.

(12.) National Council on Economics Education, National Content Standards in Economics, viii. For a more thorough discussion of religion, economics, and education (and bibliographical references), see my book Taking Religion Seriously across the Curriculum (Washington, D.C.: ASCD, 1998), 105–16.

(13.) In a Parade magazine story Duvall is quoted as saying that “teachers, parents and others are often afraid that economics can’t be separated from ideology and politics.” The author then writes: “That's not true, Duvall adds. Indeed, the National Council's standards for an economics curriculum are basic principles with no ideological content…. These principles are just common sense.” Lynn Brenner, “What We Need to Know about Economics,” Parade (April 16, 1999).

(14.) Economics: Principles and Tools, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2003), 432.

(p.298) (15.) Robert Wuthnow, Christianity in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 200.

(16.) National Research Council, National Science Education Standards (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995), 201.

(17.) Ibid., 138.

(18.) Conceptual Physics (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002), 6–7.

(19.) Glencoe Biology (New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2005), 21.

(20.) Physics: A Worldview, 5th ed. (Pacific Grove, Calif.: Thomson-Brooks/Cole, 2004), 10.

(21.) Ibid., 344.

(22.) Edward Larson, Trial and Error (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 200.

(23.) Lawrence S. Lerner, Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States (Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2000), 12, 26.

(24.) Glencoe Biology, 388.

(25.) Physics: A Worldview, 616.

(26.) According to the Standards for the English Language Arts (Urbana, Ill.: International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English, 1996) texts chosen for study should “reflect the diversity of the United States’ population in terms of gender, age, social class, religion, and ethnicity” (28). In discussing cultural diversity the standards suggest that students might explore “the history of oral cultures and their many philosophical and religious traditions” (41–42). At another point, the standards note that African folk narratives and Greek myths “can be read as delightful, entertaining stories, as representations of mythic archetypes or as cultural, religious, or philosophical histories of particular regions or people” (27).

(27.) I looked at three world literature, three British literature, and three American literature anthologies, all with copyright dates of 2006 or 2007. I thank Martha Dill for her help in reviewing these texts.

(28.) The one Advanced Placement text I reviewed gave a little more than 1 percent of its pages to religion (primarily by cataloging the religion clauses in U.S. Supreme Court rulings in a seven-page section); the other three texts each gave somewhat less than 1 percent of its pages to religion.

(29.) The sole exception is a nine-week course required in the Modesto, California, schools that has been offered since 2001 without incident.

(30.) If the fact that God comes up so rarely is unsurprising, there is, nonetheless, an irony in it. As I noted in chapter 1, most professors believe in God and, as George Marsden has noted, “Keeping within our intellectual horizons a being who is great enough to create us and the universe … ought to change our perspectives on quite a number of things. One might expect it to have a bearing on some of the most sharply debated issues in academia today…. Why, in a culture in which many academics profess to believe in God, do so few reflect on the academic implications of that belief?” (The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997], 4).

(31.) For discussion of the AAR study see Linell Cady, “What Does the Census Data Say about the Study of Religion?” Religion Studies News 17, no. 2 (March 2002): 7, 21; and Hans Hillerbrand, “The 2000 Survey of Departments of Religion,” Religious Studies News 19, no. 2 (March 2004): 6, 19.

(p.299) (32.) According to the 2009 Chronicle Almanac 78 percent of American undergraduates attend public institutions and 22 percent attend private colleges (August 28, 2009), 6. The numbers would be even more lopsided if we consider two-year schools.

(33.) According to the AAR study, about 4 percent of public universities that offer coursework in religion require that students study religion (in some way).

(34.) Conrad Cherry, Beter A. DeBerg, and Amanda Porterfield end their helpful book Religion on Campus (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) with the following assessment (which is somewhat different from mine): “We found both the practice and the study of religion to be vital aspects of the slices of American higher education that we observed…. It is possible that young people in American culture have never been more enthusiastically engaged in religious practice or with religious ideas” (294–95). But, I would respond, we cannot extrapolate from their in-depth study of four universities to public universities generally. Only one of the four universities they studied was a public university, and unlike the majority of public universities it had a department of religious studies. Nor do they pay adequate attention, in this concluding generalization, to the elective nature of religion courses, or the extent to which courses may be highly specialized or narrowly historical.

(35.) Alan Wolfe, “Higher Learning,” in Lingua Franca (March/April 1996): 70.