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

Religious Literacy by Stephen R. Prothero
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May 28, 14

Read in April, 2011

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 stunningly weak grasp of the facts of faith. Especially for Christians, the content of personal beliefs are, in surprisingly many cases, nebulous or empty at best, perfectly inconsistent and silly at worst, and very often just at odds with anything that the Scriptures, church history or faith leaders teach. The case is even more pathetic with our familiarity with other traditions. If we know very little about our own traditions, we are completely in the dark about our neighbors’ deepest beliefs.

Prothero is not making value judgments here. He is merely pointing out the unequivocal data, that from seminaries to the regular folk in the pews, Americans are passionate but ignorant. We are “a nation that believes God has spoken in scripture, but can’t be bothered to listen to what God has to say.” (7) To some people this religious illiteracy is unremarkable-—even a great number of Christians are far more comfortable feeling close to Jesus than knowing anything about him. However, the world is so fraught with conflicts involving religion, that we are dumbing ourselves into mortal danger. It is from this concern, for informed citizenry rather than evangelism, that Prothero describes just how illiterate we are, explains carefully how we have come to this situation, analyzes how important it is, and offers how we might move forward.

So how faithful are we? Despite the growth of secular influences and waning church attendance, when taken demographically, “the US population [is] more Christian than Israel is Jewish or Utah is Mormon.” (31) Quite simply, a vast majority of Americans identify themselves as Christian. Ironically, however some of the most intense of those believers score no better on Biblical literacy tests than atheists. Take, for instance, that “20 percent of evangelicals believe in reincarnation.” (38) What, in God’s name (literally, in God’s name) is the point of caring a lick about "evangelical" Christianity, if you’re going to tick that box about the afterlife? How dare these folks fiddle with science textbooks on faithful grounds, if their grasp of faith is that bad?

How did we get to this point? There was a time-—not a mythical golden age, there really was a time-—when Americans knew religion, or at least their own form of Christianity. Interpretations and arguments always have been and will be here, but once upon a time churches, families, and educational public policy joined to promote knowledge about the stories, facts and values of Christianity. According to Prothero, three basic movements pushed us toward the religious illiteracy we see today: a bald misunderstanding of the constitution’s place in public education, the growth of a silly religious relativism, and an emphasis of faithful emotion over knowledge.

To the first point, he describes how public education once used religiously-themed schoolbooks, and now is nearly silent on issues of faith. Universities that once revolved around faithful understanding of the world, now partitioned off Religious Studies as a specialization. Most depressing for youth pastors like me, “there is hardly any difference in Bible knowledge between younger teens (7th to 9th graders) and older teens (10th to 12th graders).” (41) High Schools particularly ignore religion, offering at most vague historical references: “While history textbooks talk about the existence of religious diversity in America, they do not show it: Jews exist only as the objects of discrimination; Catholics exist to be discriminated against and to ask for government money for their own schools; there is no reflection of the diversity within American Protestantism… The Quakers are shown giving us religious freedom and abolition, and then apparently disappear off the face of the earth.” (67) Prothero contends that a main reason why our young people learn so little is that schools are afraid of and ignorant about the constitutionality of teaching about religion. We have grown up with a fearful and heavy notion of church-state separation, but “the Supreme Court has made its position plain… it is constitutional to teach about religion in the public schools.” (159) In fact, “Supreme Court justices are all but begging public schools to teach about religion.” (171) Moreover, “The current strategy of obeying the law by avoiding religion may well be violating the Constitution, by indoctrinating students into a secular view of the world.” (161)

Another main culprit of religious illiteracy is the assumption that the American melting pot has melted us all down to some common religious denominator. For historical reasons that Prothero describes (perhaps the most tenuous argument of the book), we have been taught that politeness requires us to boil down all religions to one essential message, namely the Golden Rule. Not only is this a sad development, but it is downright illogical and based on deep misunderstandings about religious traditions. Just because the Golden Rule is present in most faith traditions, does not mean that it is foundational or descriptive, or descriptive enough, of any of them. Morality is not the beginning or end of religion, but at best (and rarely at that) a low commonality. Instead of relativism, “the fact is that the world’s religions disagree fundamentally on the most basic matters. They do not agree on the problems they are trying to solve, on the goals they are trying to reach, on the paths to get to those goals, or on what sort of people… best chart those paths.” (177)

On the triumph of emotion over intellect, Prothero notes that churches across the theological spectrum have shifted from a mission of soul enrichment toward something like consumerist entertainment. In our styles of worship, fellowship programming and what passes as religious education today, “Americans by the millions would choose piety and check their intellects at the church-house door. They would endeavor not to know Jesus but to feel him.” (135) For instance, soon after Christian theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr graced the cover of Life magazine, pastors like Norman Vincent Peale and Billy Graham began to create the genre of religious self-help therapy, the very gospel of happiness that rules megachurches today. Since then, “evangelicals made a virtue of their ignorance.” (133) And about the same time, just as political correctness turns America into a ‘Judeo-Christian’ and eventually ‘Abrahamic’ nation, President Eisenhower could say, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” (142) Across American society, “the God-fearing faith of Calvinism yielded to the Jesus-loving faith of evangelicalism, and American religion became less intellectual and more enthusiastic.” (59)

To approach this emotionalization of Christianity a bit more theoretically than historically, one of the most interesting sections of the book (at least for theology nerds like myself) is Prothero’s application of Ninian Smart’s ‘Dimensions of the Sacred’ to the fall of religious literacy. Very simply, Smart has offered a way to map religions along six dimensions: doctrinal/philosophical, narrative/mythic, ritual/practical, experiential/emotional, ethical/legal, and social/institutional. For instance, where Ancient Hebrew traditions often emphasized stories and rituals, rabbinical Judaism focused more on rules and community. For American Christianity over this last century, “deeds had triumphed over creeds.” (131) We have moved “from the intellect to the emotions, from doctrine to storytelling, from the Bible to Jesus, and from theology to morality.” (132)

Strictly from a religious perspective, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There may even be a spiritual value in decluttering our souls with information. “Might American religion be thriving precisely because of Americans’ religious illiteracy? … ‘ignorance is the mother of devotion’.” (181) Perhaps. However, religious literacy is especially important in a world in which religious values are mixed up with conflicts both local (such as the building of a Muslim community center in NYC) and global (such as the death of NATO forces after the Gainesville pastor burned a Koran). Familiarity with one’s own tradition should be an absolute requirement for anyone attempting to legislate its precepts. What does democracy even mean when people claim to vote on Christian values, without actually knowing about Christian values? And with the world growing ever more religiously diverse, religious illiteracy is leading us to less mutual respect and understanding, and more conflict and violence.

So, how do we save ourselves? Remember, Prothero is interested in “spreading knowledge rather than inculcating virtues.” (21) He is very clear that his purpose in documenting and trying to overcome religious illiteracy is civic not sanctified. With that perspective, Prothero’s main advice is to require high school students to learn about the Bible and world religions. That’s an idealistic goal in a time when art and sports are being cut, not to mention teachers and entire school buildings. The professor will be teaching religiously illiterate students for years to come. But he does offer one simpler, helpful aide. At the end of this book, one will find a very good primer on dozens of culturally relevant religious terms, from ‘Abraham’ to ‘Zionism’. Also in the appendices one can take Prothero’s basic quiz, to find out just how illiterate we are.
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