Terence's Reviews > Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't

Religious Literacy by Stephen R. Prothero
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Sep 12, 10

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Read from September 02 to 11, 2010 , read count: 1

I've been looking for something to listen to on the drive to work and this is just the ticket.
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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 off against secularists (or they're commenting on their opposites). I cringe when the former claim the Founders were Christians and that the United States is a Christian nation. I cringe as well when the latter claim that the Founders weren't all that Christian and that the United States isn't a Christian nation.

They're both wrong, and Stephen Prothero's Religious Illiteracy is a good introduction as to why that's so.

Technically speaking, the secularists are right: America is not a "Christian" nation. "God" is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution and the federal government (and, after the 14th Amendment, states) is forbidden from establishing or restricting the exercise of religion, and there are no (formal) religious tests for office, but in all other respects, America is profoundly Christian.

Or it was. In the last century we Americans have had to accomodate and live up to the ideal of religious tolerance to a far greater extent than the Founders ever imagined (and present-day right-wing evangelicals want).

All this is secondary, though, to the purported chief purpose of this book and that is to document the appalling religious illiteracy of the American public. "Illiteracy" has two forms: The first is ignorance of other faiths. The second is ignorance of one's own faith. It's this latter that Prothero focuses on - how did it develop and why does it matter?

As to development - The "fault" lies in the nature of Christianity as it evolved in America. Correct doctrine dominated religious dialog from Luther's theses down to the Revolution. The smallest differences in liturgy or theology could set two communities at each other's throats and informed believers knew why they were Puritans or Methodists or Congregationalist or Quakers, etc., and not something else. The marketplace of religions that arose in the wake of the Revolution fostered competition among creeds and the triumph of evangelical Christianity* in the 2nd Great Revival meant that the emphasis fell on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ at the expense of doctrine.

The accidents of history made further dumbing down inevitable:

1. The Catholic "invasion" of the country in the 19th century prompted Protestants to draw together against the tyranny of the papists and de-emphasize any differences.

2. The threat of Godless Communism prompted Christians of all kinds to band together.

3. Today, it's the "threat" of Islam that is bringing Christians together in an effort to define themselves against the Other.

I would think the importance of our illiteracy is self-evident. How can you understand your own motivations much less another's when you can't even recite the basic tenets of your faith? (It's the rare American Christian who can name the four Gospels or recite the Ten Commandments, and don't even attempt to get into transubstantiation with a Catholic. And American Jews shouldn't get too smug - many of them are just as ignorant of their scriptures as Christians.)

If there's anything this survey lacks it's a concommitant look at American Muslims (or Buddhists, Hindus, etc.) to see if there's a similar level of ignorance amongst their congregations.

I'd recommend the book, especially the first chapters. Chapter 6 - the dictionary of religious literacy - makes for some dry recitation; the meat of Prothero's argument is in the first chapters and more interesting. If you're a believer it may spur you to take a closer look at the distinctiveness of your beliefs; and whether you're a believer or not, Prothero's overview of American cultural history is eye opening and instructive.

* Don't make the mistake that present-day evangelicals make of equating their beliefs with those of 18th and 19th century evangelicals. The problem with modern evangelicals claiming that the Founders would be on their side is twofold. One, the Founders, by and large, weren't evangelicals; and, two, the evangelicals of the early Republic had different concerns and beliefs than their modern counterparts.
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Reading Progress

09/07/2010 "The "Bible Wars" of the 19th Century resulted in riots, lost life and burned churches. All because we couldn't agree on which Bible to teach in public schools."
09/08/2010 "Disc 5: Where is the virtue in tolerance if all religions are the same in their core beliefs? (Taking a dig at Karen Armstrong et al. and their well-meaning but misguided attempts to defuse sectarian fanaticism.)"
09/09/2010 "Disc 6: Yikes! The first salvo in Bill O'Reilly's War Against Christmas was fired by the Puritans in 1659!"

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Lobstergirl (new)

Lobstergirl 2. The threat of Godless Communism prompted Christians of all kinds to band together.

3. Today, it's the "threat" of Islam that is bringing Christians together in an effort to define themselves against the Other.


I would stick "some" in there before Christians. Many Christian leaders today are trying hard to spread tolerance of Islam and acceptance of Muslims. Richard Cizik is just one of many - a VP of the National Association of Evangelicals - he spoke at the news conference held by all kinds of religious leaders trying to convince crackpot Terry Jones not to burn Korans.


Terence Lobstergirl wrote: "2. The threat of Godless Communism prompted Christians of all kinds to band together.

3. Today, it's the "threat" of Islam that is bringing Christians together in an effort to define themselves ag..."


By rights, I should stick "some" in front of all references to Christians. I may have failed to articulate clearly but Prothero is pretty good about not over generalizing. Just because the trend was to downplay sectarianism and unite against a common (perceived) threat - other creeds, Catholics, Communists, Muslims, etc. - there have always been Christians like Cizik (and Muslims like Rauf) who won't play to the worst instincts in human nature. And even that last sentence is unfair. The people Prothero writes about weren't - for the most part - bad; most had good intentions and didn't feel they were doing anything wrong. They certainly didn't intend to make Americans sound like ignorant yahoos when it came to their faiths; it just turned out that way.

Unfortunately, even before the age of the 24-hour news cycle and Fox News, people let emotions and simplistic versions of reality guide them. How much coverage is Cizik's press conference getting? And would we have heard about Rauf's civic center if right-wing blogs hadn't raised a hysterical campaign about a "school for terrorists" at Ground Zero?

Prothero doesn't get much into the details of the latest round of some (;-)) Christian groups circling the wagons. I'm hoping to better understand how he thinks different faiths can coexist once I get my hands on God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter.

As it is, I'd like to reread the first 5 chapters of this book as I listened to most of it while dodging LA traffic, and his arguments are more subtle and complete than my poor attempt to rephrase them implies.


Terence Elizabeth wrote: "Interesting. You do make an assumption that all of your readers have some sort of faith. :-)

This is interesting too, from your status update, "The "Bible Wars" of the 19th Century resulted in rio..."


I don't think so. Not entirely since even if you're raised an atheist from birth you grow up surrounded by cultures of faith. Even the "godless Communists" couldn't completely eliminate the Russian Orthodox Church to raise generations unblinkered by the opiate of the masses.

As to the "Bible Wars," that intrigued me too as my history teachers never mentioned it but unfortunately Prothero doesn't go into it in any detail. It was something that caught my attention while speeding down the highway. (I did find this site: http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs..., which sounds like what Prothero was referring to in his book.)


Terence Elizabeth wrote: "Terence wrote: "Elizabeth wrote: "Interesting. You do make an assumption that all of your readers have some sort of faith. :-)

This is interesting too, from your status update, "The "Bible Wars" o..."


You didn't sound snarky at all. And if that was snark, it was highly rarefied and intellectual snark :-)


message 5: by John (new)

John Sounds like an interesting book. Your mention that few Christians could name the four gospels (I find that hard to believe) or the 10 Commandments (I find that easy to believe) reminded me of a Colbert interview with a congressman who had proposed displaying the 10 commandments in courtrooms (or maybe it was in Congress) and Colbert asked him to name the 10 Commandments. He got three, I think.

As an atheist, I've always found it to be a profound advantage when talking to Christians that I tend to know more about the Bible and about various forms of Christianity than they do--but then, I was a fairly serious Christian for quite a few of my formative years. Perhaps in some ways it's easier to maintain faith, though, when it's coupled with ignorance? I don't mean that to be condescending, because there are a good many very intelligent, thoughtful believers who know quite well what they believe, but for Joe Church-on-Sundays, it's probably easiest to believe in the *process* of religion--what his faith community *does*--than to worry too much about doctrine.


Terence John wrote: "Sounds like an interesting book. Your mention that few Christians could name the four gospels (I find that hard to believe) or the 10 Commandments (I find that easy to believe) reminded me of a Col..."

The funniest (to me) example of illiteracy (and Prothero admits this may be just urban legend) is the story that when asked "what are the epistles?" students said that they were the Apostles' wives.


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