Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By Bjorn Watland

Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus and chair of the religion department at Boston University, believes there is a crisis at hand in America.  The crisis is the lack of religious literacy among America’s citizens.  His book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t, talks in length of the problem, and offers a solution.  If only Americans knew more about the worlds religions, then society would be better off.  Religion is all around us, and yet, no one talks about it, and no one knows anything about it.  Why, we could have prevented WACO if we only gave Koresh enough time to decode the Seven Seals, rather then helping him fulfill his end times prophesy.  A Sikh was shot by a man at a gas station after 9/11, because the man thought he was a Muslim.  If only he knew the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, this killing wouldn’t have happened.  Also post 9/11 problems, such as a lack of Arabic speaking people in the government, and no understanding of Islam (Bush said, “Islam is peace,” Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist), could be solved with greater religious literacy.  Another problem, but less severe, is that Americans don’t “get” religious references made in books, movies, plays, television, or in politics.  “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.”  George W. Bush quoted the bible in his first inaugural address, but even some members of the media were clueless and didn’t know that Bush was referring to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.  “Shouldn’t the people whose votes put them in office be able to understand what their elected officials are saying, to evaluate whether they are reading the Bible correctly or abusing it for partisan political purposes?,” Prothero questions.

A third of Prothero’s book is on the history of religion in America, basically how Protestantism spread, how Catholicism grew after years of oppression, various influxes of smaller religions, like Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism.  This section is really well done.  If you scratch your head and wonder how there are so many people who consider themselves, “Born again,” this will explain how.  If you’ve ever wondered what role religion has played in America’s schools, this will tell you all about the heavily Protestant education students received until the years after the Civil War, when the goal of the public schools was to establish moral character, rather then indoctrinating students.  Even then, this education was nonsectarian, but Protestant in practice.  America moves further away from religious literacy by popularizing Jesus after the Civil War, changing sola scriptura to sola Jesus, or the Bible alone, to Jesus alone.  This new American Jesus changes with the times.  Preachers were very successful when “Preaching Christ,” rather then preaching the Bible.  This led Christianity in America to be more about raising moral Christians then raising Christians who knew the Bible, memorized commandments, prayers, or Catechism’s.  Once Christianity is focused on morals, the unity with Judaism, with similar morals, is easy enough, and before you know it, America is a Judeo-Christian nation, and now a Judeo-Christian-Islamic nation.

The next third deals with the question, “How to solve the problem of religious literacy in America?”  In short, Prothero prescribes two classes as the answer.  Fitting as he is a teacher, and a teacher of religion, no less.  He orders one dose of Biblical study, and one dose of World Religion study, in public high schools.  The Bible must be taught apart from other religions because it is so important to American culture.  He believes you can’t be a good citizen without a strong knowledge of the stories in the Bible.  But, because we live in a global society, we need a course on World Religions as well.  This should cover the seven major religions of the world-Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These courses would be repeated in greater depth in secondary courses as well.  In both cases, the courses should be mandatory.  Parents can choose to opt their children out of any course which they find offensive.

If you are afraid this will create an American Theocracy where the Bible is given strong emphasis over the beliefs of minority religions in America, or that Prothero’s Proposal is unconstitutional, Prothero has thought of that.  Proper certification and training will be necessary for anyone teaching these courses on religion. The classes aren’t unconstitutional, as they don’t endorse, or support any one particular religion.  He believes there is a difference between teaching doctrine, and teaching about religion.  He contends that the current philosophy, that religion should not be made a mandatory subject, is unconstitutional, in that it supports a religion of secular humanism above all others.  But, with proper training, teachers will be able to control their inner Sunday school teacher, or their inner atheist, and objectively teach religion.  I think the controversy is understated, even though most Americans support teaching about world religions, and about using the Bible in literature, history, and social studies classes.  While I feel that knowledge of Biblical stories is helpful to keep politicians and the media in check when they use or misuse scripture to suit their own means, the Bible is tricky, because different sects treat the Bible differently, based on their faith.  This could be difficult when testing about certain books or stories.  There is a problem with teaching the Bible objectively, in that no matter how it is taught, the students will be arguing about the interpretations of passages, each arguing from their own sects foundations, and the outsiders will be looking for inaccuracies to criticise the believers.  The teacher can not criticise the Bible, and can’t preach either.  That is such a fine line, I don’t know if it’s possible at this time in American history, to do so widely across the country.  Would a class on the Bible be taught the same in New York as in Alabama?

The last third of the book is a dictionary of religious terms every American should be familiar with.  It contains an emphasis on Christian characters and stories, but you’ll also be taught the sacred texts of Hinduism, and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.  Here is where Prothero’s bias comes out.  He tries to be objective, prefacing certain definitions with, “according to Hinduism,” or “according to Islam,” however, tends to skip this preface when speaking about Christian subjects.  That may be nitpicking, but highlights how difficult it is to be completely impartial when discussing religion, even when taking care to be objective.

Americans don’t know anything about religion, even their own.  The side effects are that those in power can misuse scripture, we don’t understand why world cultures do what they do, and we don’t understand our own cultural history.  While Prothero’s goal is noble, it may be too little, too late for America.  Prothero describes himself as religiously confused, but still attends Lutheran services.  His Protestantism echoes through this book, but that should be understood as his unique background, and explains any bias which may be in his book.  While you may not agree with Prothero’s Proposal, this book is valuable in describing the history of religion in America, and why things are the way they are today.  Religious Literacy is published by HarperSanFrancisco and is available in most book stores, and as an audiobook.

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