Three weeks ago, I was introduced to a man I’d heard mentioned only in passing. He whirled into the desert like a mirage in an open-breasted crimson jumpsuit, and he faded back into the black hole of Netflix with a movie’s closing refrain. Just 108 minutes later, I realized that this brief exposition through Jesus Christ, Superstar was the most I’d ever seen or heard of Judas.

Judas Iscariot—for those of you who don’t know, as I at the time did not—is, in the teachings of the New Testament, one of Jesus Christ’s Twelve Apostles; it is said that his kiss of identification proved his ultimate betrayal of Jesus.

I was floored. Eleven years in one of the nation’s top public school systems, seven years of bi-weekly religious education, five months as a declared religious studies major, and somehow no one had thought to teach me anything about Judas. I’d touched upon everything from Shaivite worship to evangelical exemption in my Claremont classes, but for all I knew after 21 years, Judas Iscariot could be just another character in a Washington Irving story: a co-conspirator, perhaps, of Ichabod Crane. In retrospect, my surprise was unwarranted. Looking back, I realized that at no time in my schooling had I been taught much about the New Testament; I knew only about Jesus Christ himself in the vaguest of terms.

I take partial credit for my ignorance. I’ve never read the Bible cover-to-cover, and I have entered churches only on a number of occasions and even then mostly for their architectural and historical value. It seems a travesty to me, though, that something so fundamental to so many Americans can continue to go untaught in our schools. Now, I’m not advocating for prayer sessions in public schools or for implementing creationist curriculum. But in a country in which 69 percent of adults are very or moderately religious, why is Romeo and Juliet read so much more often than the King James Bible, the Qu’ran, or the Torah?

Some might argue that teaching religion in schools is a violation of the separation of church and state; in fact, less than a quarter of Americans know that Supreme Court rulings do allow teachers to read from the Bible as literature, and only 36 percent know that comparative religion can be lawfully taught in public schools. Even Justice Robert Jackson in 1948 posited that it is “part of preparation for a worldly life to know the roles that religion and religions have played in the tragic story of mankind.” Certainly this sentiment holds true now more than ever. In our rapidly shifting and globalizing society, it is vital that America’s people understand the world’s religions.

Only 54 percent of American adults understand that the Qu’ran is the Islamic holy book. Less than half of Americans know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Similar numbers could tell you that the Jewish Sabbath begins on a Friday. Why does this matter? Because religious ignorance and misunderstanding is today a driving factor in many global conflicts and a breeding ground for discrimination and hate in our own nation. Why, then, do many public and private schools focus more on the Capulet-Montague feud than on centuries-old religious beliefs that so heavily influence our lives today?

Students should know about Judas Iscariot. And about Vishnu, Muhammad, Solomon, Guru Nanak, and Siddhartha. We should be taught about religious history and practices—not through the framework of religious institution itself, but from an unbiased, fact-driven, and historical perspective. When we cover the Crusades in European history, should we not also cover the fundamentals of Christian religion? We can learn about India’s system of governance and economics, but until we also understand the intricacies of the South Asian religious spectrum, how are we to grasp the underlying Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its impact on the nation? If knowledge is indeed power, why are we so weak where religion is concerned?


  1. “But in a country in which 69 percent of adults are very or moderately religious, why is Romeo and Juliet read so much more often than the King James Bible, the Qu’ran, or the Torah?”

    I have trouble believing the above statement is true given the fact that the The Bible is the best selling book of all time: “” In fact, none of Shakespeare’s works make this list but the Bible
    and the Qur’an do. While there may be a difference between most read and most bought, I feel like the former is much harder to measure.

    That being said, I agree with your core argument. There is really no reason I should be asked whether I “speak Hindu.”

    • Sorry, I was referring to reading in high schools- I had originally linked to stats of the most taught books for public and private secondary schools. Should have clarified with the edits!

  2. I think that this article is a critique on approaches education specifically, not necessarily a secular education. Scripps and Pomona have pretty strong religious studies programs, and are still considered secular schools. I attended a public school where the bible (as literature) was required reading.

    That being said, I think your conclusion is correct. In a culture where the bible is the single most referenced text in literature, it requires at least functional familiarity.

  3. Christianity in the 80’s: God is punishing the homosexuals with HIV/AIDS.

    Christianity in the 2010s: God has cured HIV!

    The problem with teaching religion is that it is not founded on facts. I take no issue with teaching religion from a secular standpoint, that is, from a sociological/literary/historical viewpoint. However, your article is titled “The Disadvantages of a Secular Education”. What would you rather have us do? Teaching religion in the manner you have described IS teaching religion secularly. This is an ADVANTAGE, not a disadvantage.

    Religion has singlehandedly been the cause of many of the world’s most terrible events (Crusades, etc.). Religion has stalled science (imprisoning of Galileo, preventing stem cell research). Religion has taken the lives of many.

    Those who fundamentally believe in religion in this way are unlikely to change through education. Religion is based on faith. What faith would you have if it is swayed so easily? Sure, some people might become more tolerant, but these are likely NOT the people causing issues for the rest of the world. The people who DO cast a negative light on religion are not the tolerant religious types, but the intolerant ones.

    The best thing we can, should, and currently do is to either teach religion from a purely historical/sociological/literary standpoint, or not at all. This is an institution of learning and reason, not faith.

    • well said, my friend “judas”!

      the story of judas (and perhaps the word secular) is to hannah as the word chameleon is to ted mosby.

      just because your nonreligious school didn’t teach you about him… doesn’t mean none of ours did.

  4. Judas is not exactly an obscure figure. My own secular middle and high school experiences referenced Judas. This may not be a common experience, but you might instead point the blame towards your specific secular education.

    • yeah i’m an avowed atheist who grew up Jewish and of course Judas is a known figure to me. Even the vaguest conception of the Jesus myth has got to include him.

  5. its almost like you didn’t get this exact same topic from an op ed in the wall street journal 4 days ago…

  6. no. education should be secular. even reading from an alleged holy text (ha.) as literature is a secular act, no different from analyzing some other piece of literature.

    In fact, I do find many religious traditions to be fascinating as myths, including Christianity and Judaism, my family’s religion. but the moment you start believe that nonsense is when your education of any kind stops, and your delusion begins.

  7. Religious studies classes at the 5C’s are taught secularly. The second you start learning theology not as academic discipline theology but as truth is the second the education gets religious. I don’t think secular means what you say it does.

    Oh. And hey. Doesn’t CMC have an RLST GE?

  8. Great article! As a Gov/Religious Studies major, I agree that it’s really important for an understanding of culture and society to understand religion.

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