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Religious illiteracy

We’re woefully uninformed about faiths — even our own, author says

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Some of what we don't know is comical (Who was Joan of Arc? Noah's wife, answered 10 percent of Americans in one poll). And some of what we don't know is surprising (Who said "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"? Fifty-six percent of people who identified themselves as born-again Christians didn't recognize it as a quote by Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount).

Add up all of what we don't know, not just about other people's religions but about our own, and it makes America "a nation of religious illiterates" — at the same time that we profess to be one of the most religious countries in the world, says Stephen Prothero.

Prothero is a Boston University professor, chairman of its religion department and author of "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't." The book, published this month, includes a small encyclopedia of religious information, from al-Qaida to Zionism. The heart of the book, though, and the reason it's getting lots of attention (including a coveted spot earlier this week on "The Daily Show"), is the light it shines on American ignorance when it comes to the who, what and why of religion.

Prothero is unflinching in his criticism but hardly self-righteous. Here, for example, is a description of the day when his youngest daughter received a new Bible at the Lutheran Church his family sometimes attends: After the service, Prothero asked his daughter, then 8, to name one of the books of the Bible. No response. "'How about a Bible character?' I asked somewhat desperately, 'other than Jesus?,'" Prothero writes. "To which, after giving the matter considerable thought, she responded, 'Tom."'

In "Religious Literacy," Prothero outlines how it is that Americans have become so unknowledgeable about religion and offers a far-reaching "modest proposal" to turn things around: the re-introduction of religious education in public schools. But before you either applaud or scream (depending on your world view), understand that Prothero is not trying to make students more religious.

It's all about prepositions: not of religion but about religion. No preaching, just teaching.

That's not unconstitutional, he points out. But the current strategy of trying to abide by the First Amendment by avoiding teaching about religion in public schools "may well be violating the Constitution, by indoctrinating students into a secular view of the world." At a minimum, he says, "this tendency is fueling the self-identity of many evangelicals as a besieged minority."

Knowing about religion is crucial, because "religion is the most powerful piece of culture," Prothero said in a phone interview from his home in Boston. It fuels wars and inspires justice, and "after 9/11 it's really hard to pretend anymore that religion doesn't matter. That it's not literally a life-and-death matter.

"What would have happened," he asks, "if George Bush and Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice were religiously literate?" What would have happened if the three of them, and others in the Departments of State and Defense, had understood the religious complexity of Iraq. "At least they would have said, 'OK, we have Sunnis and Shiites, and maybe we're going to get a civil war."'

Prothero is equally dismayed by Texas Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who was asked several weeks ago by a reporter whether al-Qaida is a Sunni or Shiite organization. Predominantly Shiite, Reyes answered.

"To me, that's unforgiveable," Prothero says. "That's like someone running the Department of Transportation and not knowing the difference between a highway and a country lane."

Domestically, Prothero argues, Americans need religious literacy in order to be "effective citizens." Literacy about Christianity is especially important, he says, because Christian references are used in political arguments about issues such as abortion, stem cell research and capital punishment.

When people argue that abortion is wrong because the Bible says so, "we should be able to say, where does the Bible say that, and the person should be forced to come back and show us," he says. "Or, on the left, we may hear that capital punishment is wrong 'because the Bible says so.'

"The point is that when people on the right or left make this kind of talk, they draw down the authority of God or religion or Christ or the Bible to support their views, and sometimes it's totally bogus and sometimes it's not. You can engage them by saying 'don't refer to religion.' That's the civil libertarian approach. But that's not going to change it."

The decline in religious studies in America was not a result of the 1962 Supreme Court ruling outlawing prayer in schools, he argues. Instead, there were a series of cultural shifts beginning in the 1800s. "Ironically," he writes, "the United States became a nation of forgetters at the same time it became a nation of evangelicals." Believing in Christ became more important, he writes, than knowing about Christ. "To evangelicalism, therefore, we owe both the vitality of religion in contemporary America and our impoverished understanding of it."

And, too, Americans in the 19th century began to embrace a nondenominational Christianity, sometimes in an effort to further social ends such as temperance and the abolition of slavery, and sometimes as a way to present a united front against "what many saw as a worrying wave of Roman Catholic immigration."

Eventually, "the lowest-common-denominator Protestantism once preached in public schools morphed into generic Christianity, then into generic moralism," he writes. Religion collapsed into values, and values into sexual morality, "which in turn functions via an odd sort of circular reasoning as a proxy for religiosity."

To people who suggest that religious literacy should be cultivated in churches and synagogues and mosques, rather than in public schools and universities, he argues that, yes, that could be done, but it's often not. And even when the details of their own religions are taught, there is rarely instruction about other people's religions.

Last year, in a course on "Death and Immortality" he teaches at Boston University, Prothero gave his students a religious literacy quiz. There were 15 questions, on topics ranging from the Ten Commandments to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Most of the students, he reports, flunked.

E-mail: jarvik@desnews.com