Religious Schools Are Failing Us

03/18/2016 10:31 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2017

It's not a secret that the US education system could use improving, but faith-based instruction is seldom singled out as part of the problem.

Earlier this year, Naftuli Moster, executive director of YAFFED (Young Advocates for Fair Education) drew attention to the plight of young Jewish boys attending yeshivas instead of public schools. According to Moster, nearly 50,000 yeshiva students in the New York City area "are not being taught science, history, and geography among other subjects," even though the NY State Department of Education "requires non-public schools to teach a variety of subjects, including English, math, science, history, geography, art and more." Misinformation and omission of subject matter are problems not just relegated to New York or to yeshivas.

As Dana Hunter wrote in Scientific American, millions of children are being taught in Christian private schools and through religious homeschooling that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that Noah's flood is "the event that formed most of the geologic record." Many of these schools, as well as parents who homeschool their children for religious reasons, use non-accredited science books, such as Science of the Physical Creation in Christian Perspective, that inject religious ideology into "lessons" about science.

And according to Valerie Strauss and Emily Wax of the Washington Post, tens of thousands of American schoolchildren attending Islamic schools face a similar underexposure to important secular subject matter. As an example, Strauss and Wax point to the Islamic Saudi Academy in Virginia, which doesn't require students to take classes in US history or government. Moreover, their textbooks include religious instruction that fosters conflict. One, for example, states: "The Day of Judgment can't come until Jesus Christ returns to Earth, breaks the cross and converts everyone to Islam, and until Muslims start attacking Jews."

Though parents have the right to teach their children about religion and to send their kids to private religious schools, there can be far-reaching negative outcomes if they emphasize religious education over secular education.

Students who are undereducated in this way may miss out on fulfilling careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, all of which require a solid foundation in secular subject matter. Furthermore, the ability of students to understand the world in which they live is artificially limited by their lack of a full education. Struggling to see the universe through the foggy lens of religious dogma further leads these young people away from identifying real-world problems and finding real-world solutions.

At an individual level, many will be at a disadvantage in their higher education options and job market prospects, but at a societal level, we may suffer much more serious consequences by increasing the population of undereducated people. When decisions are in the hands of the scientifically illiterate (be they students, elected officials, or even presidential candidates) we debilitate public policy debates and progress on global issues like reproductive health, we reduce funding for potentially life-enhancing scientific research, and we endanger efforts to protect the earth's fragile ecosystems.

As parents and as a society we have options. When we follow the lead of humanist educators like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, Eugenie Scott, and Jared Diamond, who inspire millions to be informed citizens, we build a society with an expanded understanding of history and science--a society better equipped to deal with the challenges before us. But if we let the drive to seek faith-based education overcome our responsibility to truth and progress, we do a disservice to future generations and chain our potential to the leash of dogma.