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?