This anecdote, by William Pike, comes to us by way of the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog (who knew?).

My wife, who works in education, was sitting in on a world history class at one of our county’s public high schools last week when she heard a student ask, “Are Catholics Christian?”

Don’t laugh, it gets worse.

Her young, college-educated teacher responded, “No. Christianity is a Protestant thing. There are Christians and there are Catholics.” To say the least, my wife’s jaw dropped to the floor.

One person I know suggested that this teacher’s answer was a symptom of Indiana’s proximity to the Bible Belt (bet you never considered Indiana as proximate to the Bible Belt, did you?). But that is, in effect, to stereotype a stereotype – to say that people living in the Bible Belt (the non-Catholic ones, presumably) distrust and dislike Catholics, and are either too ill-informed or too biased even to see Catholics as Christians.

Mr Pike suggests that responses like this are less likely the result of anti-Catholic intolerance than sheer and woeful ignorance. It goes without saying (although I will say it anyway) that the root of intolerance and bigotry is ignorance. This applies equally to anti-Catholic bigotry as any other type of intolerance.

Archbishop Sheen famously said “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.” Well maybe more than 100, but the point is well taken. So what do you do about it. Mr Pike suggests that students need to be taught about religion in school, not what to believe but what people believe. But of course, that is a problem.

But such religious ignorance is unfortunately not confined to his example. Stephen Prothero, in his 2007 book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (see a Washington Post review here), spells out just how little Americans know about the world’s major faith traditions…

Prothero’s proposed answer is to introduce more religious coursework to American public schools and colleges. Rather than teach religion in order to promote it or to undermine it, he believes schools should teach religion so that students will understand it, and the place it holds in the world around them, from their neighbors’ dietary habits to scriptural allusions in Shakespeare.

His proposal, however, is not easily accepted by many. A paper in the World Conference of Philosophy’s Paideia Project points to the 1963 Supreme Court decision banning mandatory morning prayer in public schools:

“Schempp/Murray distinguished between teaching about religion and the teaching of religion. Although the distinction is believed to be a clear one…it is unable, in practice, to provide an adequate means of determining which courses would be acceptable and which would not.”

Teaching about religion in schools is probably a good idea, but very difficult to implement in practice. So how does a Catholic deal with displays of ignorance as demonstrated in the anecdote above. First and foremost, by not being ignorant themselves. If a well informed Catholic had been able to give a politely brief but factual response to the teacher, it may have done much to counteract the negative impact of the teachers response. Instead, when Catholics are ignorant or timid, ignorance spreads. If you want to combat religious ignorance that leads to intolerance, know your own faith and history.

Thanks to Theodore Pappas and Encyclopedia Britannica for bringing this to our attention.