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Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

3.6  ·  Rating Details ·  1,777 Ratings  ·  287 Reviews
The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life's basic questions, yet only half of American adult
ebook, 384 pages
Published October 13th 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (first published March 13th 2007)
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Jason Pettus
Oct 16, 2008 Jason Pettus rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

I had been really looking forward to reading this book ever since first hearing about it; it's a supposed beginner's guide to the world's major religions, explaining to us stupid Americans the basic tenets behind such complicated subjects as the gods of Hinduism, the morality of Islam, the ten command
Dec 15, 2007 Eric rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Civic-minded Thinkers
Once, I (a Buddhist) had to explain to my Christian co-worker that the movie "Babel" referred to the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel and the origin of languages. We've gotten ignorant in the US, and Mr. Prothero shows us the dangers and some of the causes of our religious ignorance.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, an essay on what's wrong presently with the state of our religious education. Second, a detailed and interesting study of religious learning (and unlearning) si
Feb 07, 2009 mike rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
The front cover of this book entices you with the symbols of many world religions, making you think you may get a comparative-religion primer. What you really get is a treatise on how the U.S. has gone on a slide since the Protestant Bible was removed from the schools, and offers as a solution its reintroduction as a central part of the curriculum, with the smallest of fig leaves thrown to other world religions.

You won't learn much of substance about non-Christian religions from this book. It's
Apr 05, 2011 Crystal rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
As others have mentioned, this is not what I expected.

I wanted to learn about religions, not find out about how I'm much more of an idiot than originally thought, and then get a historical background on Christianity in the United States. Oh, and secular schools never used to exist? I garnered from his tone that he thinks their current existence is BAD, and schools need to spend more time talking about religion (it sounded to me he exclusively meant Christianity, seeing as half-way through the bo
Mar 05, 2011 Jenn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This book was recommended in another one I'm reading, Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief. It was touted there just as the title makes it appear: a sort of religious primer. It is not. Not at all. Instead, what it is is a 304 page long indictment on how we know nothing about religion. Really? Wasn't that summed up in the introduction? It doesn't take an entire book to let us know that we're religiously ignorant and need to know more. With the title of this book, w ...more
May 12, 2009 Rich rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
Disappointing, but probably still worth reading.

Rather than a book about what every American needs to know about religion and doesn't, this book is mostly filler bookending a rather simple idea, namely that it is not possible to adequately teach history or current events while completely avoiding the topic of religion.

Prothero wrote a short op-ed piece arguing that because of this fact, American public schools should include courses specifically designed to inculcate religious literacy into stu
I've been looking for something to listen to on the drive to work and this is just the ticket.

I listened to the audio version of this book so, as usual, I wasn't able to take notes and succeeded only in jotting down some thoughts when I got to work or back home from the drive but I'm minded to track down the hardcopy version of this book and give it a proper read.

I often listen to radio programs or visit websites where evangelicals/fundamentalists square
Apr 26, 2014 Ben rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religious
WARNING: This book is not what the title would lead you to believe. I picked up this book thinking that it would be a general overview of the worlds major religions. I'm not completely religiously uninformed, but you could still fill a warehouse with what I donʻt know about the world's various faiths; nevertheless, I find this sort of thing very interesting and was looking forward to broadening my horizons.

What this book delivered instead was a history of Christianity in the United States, from
May 16, 2007 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone with an interest in current affairs, religion, religious law, or education
This book offers an interesting take on the existence of religious knowledge (or the apparent lack there-of) in society today. Essentially, Prothero has identified religious literacy as an important issue facing the United States today as it plagues all levels of society. In order to correct these issues, the author calls for the creation of a Biblical studies class and a world religion class within the public high school system in order to improve general religious literacy. In making his argum ...more
Nov 05, 2007 Marissa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another listened-to-in-the-car-book, and a pretty good one, too, if you're at all interested in religion and especially if you aren't for, as the author explains, Americans are woefully ignorant about religion in general even as they claim to be a religious nation.

He begins the book by explaining just how ignorant we are in the world of religion and gives a quiz which, by the way, I failed (but did get more right than the average American.) The best statistic he gave was that 10% of Americans t
Bill Kte'pi
There's an extra star or so here to balance out the negative ratings that are really just about people not getting the book they thought they were getting (some of those reviews also completely misrepresent Prothero's argument, so I suspect that once the disappointment hit them, they stopped paying much attention). This isn't a primer on religious literacy, and it was clear to me when I bought it that it wasn't; this is a book about the decline of religious literacy in the United States, the con ...more
Meh. This book suffers from an identity crisis. Is it college paper extended to prove why we need religous literacy? Is it a book on religous history of America? Is it a book that teaches about the basics of the major religions? It does all three of these but none very well. The section about why we need religous literacy, and religous history often feel directionless. The author's main points seem to contradict each other. On one hand he is saying american's need to understand religions(author ...more
May 24, 2008 Shawn rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book with the intent of educating myself on the world's major religions, but this book fails to deliver on this except in the most minimal way. It is mostly an argument for bringing classes of religous literacy into the process of American public education.

Only the last third of the book is related to informing the reader about the world religions, and even that is a series of executive summaries on religous terms provided in alphabetical order.

There is no thorough information on th
Allie Cauvel
I have high hopes for this.

Edit (8/16/11): I will categorize myself as disappointed. I think the problem began with the idea that this book was going to provide some of that Religious Literacy (what every american needs to know-- and doesn't). Instead, the majority was spent arguing why Religious literacy was important-- something I was already on-board with. Damn.

The sections titled "Eden (What We Once Knew)" and "The Fall (How We Forgot)" were off and away the most valuable/interesting parts o
Mar 13, 2008 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Prothero makes the argument for teaching religion (in a comparative fashion) in public schools. As it turns out, it wasn't the left/liberals/ACLU that removed the teaching of religion in public schools, it was a combination of two factors: the religious right didn't want other religions taught alongside and given equal weight to their own and secondly, religious teachings went through a 100 year long process whereby various faiths (mainly Protestant Christian faiths) agreed, in an attempt to kee ...more
Sep 16, 2007 Jeff rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I'd like this more if it weren't so damn boring. It's informative at times, but overall the message seems to be 'Americans don't know shit about religion'. Well thanks, jackass... that's why I bought your book. Teach me something.
Perhaps this book is preaching to the choir when I picked it up- I am pretty knowledgeable about various religions, though there’s always more I could learn. But I’m well aware that my knowledge and literacy is above average- I just didn’t realize how much! Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies realized the extent of this ignorance when he encountered college freshmen who didn’t know things he thought of as common knowledge, like the story of Noah & the ark, Moses, and the Sermo ...more
Jun 04, 2010 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, religion
Apparently, I'm fairly well versed in religion. At least, according to Prothero's little quiz, I'm among the top percentage of Americans when it comes to recognizing, identifying and defining some basic religious terms and characters. That's something to be proud of, I suppose.

But the shocking level of ignorance among many Americans today is not. I can almost understand some lack of knowledge about Hinduism or Taoism, neither of which most Americans have much contact with, but not to comprehend
Emily B.
Jul 29, 2016 Emily B. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religious
I learned the basics of world religion in World History, and my Government class analyzed the first Amendment. Aside from that, I haven't been taught very much about religion. That's why I'm so happy I read this book. The beginning and end serve as, "World Religion for Dummies", while the middle part chronicles religious education in America, from the Pilgrims to modern times.

The funny part about all of this is, I might know more about other religions than the Lutheranism I was raised with. I ca
Apr 30, 2014 John rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
This is a truly bad book. Americans are religiously illiterate - anyone interested in religion or sociology knows that - and Prothero drives the point home with condescending condemnation of us stupid Americans. This book just pissed me off - what a missed opportunity to point out that we got ourselves into a pointless mire of a war in Iraq because we (a) know nothing about Islam and (b) the Bush administration knew nothing and cared less about the history and culture of the Middle East. This bo ...more
Apr 25, 2014 Janet rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
So disappointed in this book! Thought it was going to be a 4 star book - finally some basic information about the world's leading religions without strong biases comparing them. He gave a great defense as to the social need for this type of literacy. And then he just kept giving example after example of our lack of literacy - enough already! I KNOW I don't know this stuff, so tell me what I need to know! More than 3/4 through, he finally gets around to teaching us what we need to know. The book ...more
Jan 23, 2008 Mike rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

Prothero makes a compelling case for why we need to be educated about the worlds religions. It is a great book to get discussion going with believers and nonbelievers alike. He focuses on Christianity since, he argues, it is by far the most prevalent and influential in American culture.

He covers how Americans used to be better educated about religion, why this has changed, and he offers solutions to the problem. The main section of the book is 148 pages. The last 80 pages are a mini encyclopedi
Dan Herman
May 28, 2008 Dan Herman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'm inclined to say this is a must read but I say that about every book (almost) that I read. But this is a heckuva good book. Explains how American Protestants actually sacrificed religious studies in public schools when confronted by the Catholic menace in the second half of the nineteenth century. More important, argues that we need to return religious studies to the public schools. Not religious indoctrination, but religious studies ... students need to understand religion and religious pers ...more
Sep 07, 2008 Jean rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm biased on this issue, since it's very important to me that people know something about all religions. You'll laugh, but one of the major reasons I wanted to homeschool was so that we could understand the proper role of religion in history, and learn a lot about other faiths. So I'm really enjoying this book!
Mar 31, 2008 Carrie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Carrie by: Me.
I guess you can't judge a book by its title. I wanted it to make me religiously literate, but it didn't. Instead it was a history of how we, as a country, lost religious literacy. Bummer. On the upside, it has a fantastic glossary of religious terms in the back.
May 13, 2008 Rachael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Apr 26, 2009 Teji rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Teji by: Teji
Prothero, a professor of religion, argues that American's are religiously illiterate (despite professing a high level of religious faith) and that this ignorance jeopardizes American's ability to function as good citizens. Prothero presents the seed of what I think is a valid argument--however, he frequently pushes his point, his agenda, too far-- nearly to the point of ridiculousness.

For example early in the book, Prothero makes the argument that "what killed Balbir Sing Sodhi" a Sikh who was k
Hansen Wendlandt
Jul 26, 2011 Hansen Wendlandt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Data is clear that Americans “are very religious, but they know next to nothing about religion.” (1) Prothero usually writes about the first less controversial part, focusing on the very many, very faithful US citizens, who commit time to worship, give money for the less fortunate, and assent to belief as strongly as the people of any country. In this book, however, his research on the second part, about our religious illiteracy, shows that even the most certain believers among us have a stunnin ...more
Adrian Rose
Jul 30, 2015 Adrian Rose rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book, written by a religious studies professor at Boston University, is a lament that the American public is, as a whole, very ignorant of the religions that many of them follow. He stresses what is a good point, in that even the journalists of the day are confused by the references to religious stories that today’s politicians use in their speeches. Students are being graduated from colleges across America without so much as being introduced to the story of David and Goliath, hearing about ...more
Thomas Cunningham
Interesting history by often appears too nostalgic for my taste. The author can't resist calling the liberal left the ""secular left" which is a pretty broad brush. The "religious right" he refers to is often religious, but in his opinion is largely ignorant of the religions to which they subscribe. Addendum of terminology with descriptions is helpful but incomplete. Needs an update as it was written about 8 years ago.
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Stephen Prothero is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books, most recently Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't and American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Idol. He has commented on religion on dozens of National Public Radio programs and on television on CNN, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS, MSNBC and Comedy Cent ...more
More about Stephen R. Prothero...

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