UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

Finish this sentence

The absence of religious studies programs in most Canadian schools is ... depriving our young people of a proper education.

By Michael Webster

I remember sitting in an undergraduate course in American literature. The protagonist in some poem I’ve long forgotten had done something and was washing his hands in a silver bowl. “Come on, come on,” said the professor. “Who knows what the reference is?”

“Pilate?” I ventured.

“Yes, of course,” said the professor. “How many of you know what he’s talking about?” A few hands went up, not many. “Look,” said the professor, “if you want to understand literature, the first book you have to read is the Bible.” It was my first clue that the Bible might actually be useful for something.

That was decades ago, and the rate of biblical illiteracy is now higher than ever, but I have never forgotten the lesson: an education without a religious component is a poor education indeed. Imagine

trying to read Margaret Atwood or John Irving or Timothy Findley without the ability to recognize biblical imagery.

I suppose we don’t have to be familiar with Pilate to understand “I wash my hands of the whole affair.” Some images are in common usage — everyone knows a dove symbolizes peace, even if they’ve never heard of Noah. And Bible-based phrases like “as old as the hills,” “guiding light” and “beating swords into ploughshares” are self-explanatory. Knowing their origin enriches them but isn’t necessary.

Other references are not so self-evident. Ask some high school students if they know the difference between the Good Samaritan and the Good Thief. Words and phrases we are apt to come across in the media — prodigal, David and Goliath, apocalypse, Promised Land, chapter and verse, kosher, beatitudes — require a biblical explanation.

Don’t kid yourself that most people know this stuff. They don’t. A woman who saw someone holding up a sign on a televised sports event asked me, “Does that have something to do with the Bible?” She had two university degrees but couldn’t be certain that “John 3:16” is in the Bible. People don’t know unless they are told.

How about art? Well, most modern art is so self-referential that one needs a degree in art history to understand it. And to get that, one ought to know the story behind a host of biblical images. When a hospital chapel was refurbished, I had to explain to a group of puzzled nurses that the picture of two hands reaching their index fingers to each other was from Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Students of civics ought to know that English common law, the foundation of our legal system, is biblically based. It’s all there in the Torah, from the distinction between murder and manslaughter to restitution for damages.  

And that’s just the Judeo-Christian component of a religion class. In our increasingly multicultural society, students should learn the difference between sharia and halal, Shiva and Ganesh, satori and nirvana. How do teachers have a class discussion on, say, the wearing of face scarves without teaching students what the Qur’an says (and doesn’t say) about it?

Admittedly, it seems governments have little respect — or funding — these days for “non-essential” courses such as music, drama or religion. They may enhance life, but they don’t increase employability, at least not directly.

Until that changes, if you want your children to know who Pilate was, you’d better keep sending them to Sunday school.

Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!


The biggest threat to women in South Africa is their partners

by Kristy Woudstra

An investigation of why one woman is murdered every eight hours by her husband or boyfriend in this African country — and how advocates are trying to stop it.

Promotional Image


Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: My last conversation with Nanny

by Jocelyn Bell

Editor Jocelyn Bell reflects on the power of our final words with loved ones.

Promotional Image


ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The 28-year-old also has a unique musical ability, serving as a United Church music director, and performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image


March 2018

Egerton Ryerson: The legacy of a tarnished hero

by Mike Milne

He founded public education in Ontario — and this very magazine — while also promoting residential schools. How should we judge Ryerson today? Some students want his name and image gone.


March 2018

Church organist has been leading worship for 86 years

by Wendy Lowden

And Louise Pelley is still going strong at 98 years old.


February 2018

Pro-choice advocates still at risk despite Ontario’s new abortion law

by Jackie Gillard

Threatening messages spray-painted on their doors and lawns won’t stop those advocating for reproductive rights. If anything, they feel even more determined to help protect those seeking an abortion.


March 2018

The biggest threat to women in South Africa is their partners

by Kristy Woudstra

An investigation of why one woman is murdered every eight hours by her husband or boyfriend in this African country — and how advocates are trying to stop it.


March 2016

The fighter

by Richard Wright

When he was 13 years old, Willie Blackwater stood up to his abuser at a B.C. Indian residential school. His defiance would eventually help change the course of Canadian history.


March 2018

14 writers share their moving final conversations with loved ones

by Various Writers

These stories will make you laugh, cry and rage. Maybe they’ll spark a fond memory. Or perhaps they’ll prompt you to consider the things you need to say now, before it’s too late.

Promotional Image