Religious Literacy—Book Review
June 8, 2010
Stephen Prothero knows why we’re in such a mess with regard to religion and politics; it’s because we’re a bunch of illiterates. In his book, Religious Literacy, Mr. Prothero presents the problem: Americans today know almost nothing about the religious history of their country and the religions that have set down roots here. He also presents the solution: Americans need to learn these things, and until we do, the myths and misconceptions begat by our ignorance will continue to incite political and cultural bedlam.
This is a highly necessary book. Every once in a while you might read about a survey that found only a small percentage of Americans know this or that about the Bible. But Religious Literacy (which begins with a fifteen-question quiz) tells you everything Americans don’t know about religion, and why it matters.
Mr. Prothero’s point is not religious literacy for religion’s sake, but for the sake of responsible citizenship. Our current social policy debates and our current wars involve religious ideas, but how can we participate in advocating or rejecting these policies when our own religious knowledge is so deeply flawed? How can we vote on issues, citing Biblical precepts as our guide, when we haven’t read the Bible? Condemn all of Islam when we haven’t read the Koran? Yet people do so every day.
Mr. Prothero explains how Christianity served young America—building community among people and creating order, much as St. Paul’s Christian communities did in the first century AD. He also details how the once intense study of the Christian religion by all Americans—in church, in school, and in social places—was dumbed down as a result of the effort to evangelize more people. If you’ve ever noticed how much of modern Christianity seems to consist of nothing more philosophically complex than “God is love,” that’s the reason why.
Yet, while platitudes dominate the popular religious culture, the Bible is cited in great detail by religious-minded politicos, to justify their actions. And, since church attendance is down in many groups, schools do not teach religion, and religious discussion is considered taboo in most social settings, the people these politicians target can be easily swayed by misinterpretations.
Mr. Prothero does not advocate a return to the America of old, in which the Christian God dominated society. But he calls for an effort to educate Americans about religion, and I think he makes a good point. It’s all in the presentation. Let’s teach our children about the religions of the world, but let’s do it without the sentiment: in an historical context, in a social context, in a philosophical context. Let’s teach it on the assumption that people can hear about spiritual issues without being converted by them. Let’s show our children that someone can tell the story of the Bible whether or not she believes it—and that the story has implications for our world today whether or not you attach emotion to it. Let’s show Americans that reading the Koran does not make you an Islamic terrorist; it simply makes you someone who has read the Koran.
Religion is part of most people’s lives, especially since, as Mr. Prothero notes, even people who don’t identify themselves as belonging to any particular religion still claim to believe in God, or heaven, or angels. So, if we’re going to be religious, let’s take it seriously, the way our ancestors did. Let’s know what we’re talking about. “National surveys have shown, ” Mr. Prothero writes, “that most Americans cannot name five of the ten Commandments.” Yet, many Americans believe that the Ten Commandments are the basis for American law. That means most Americans don’t know much about religion or the law of their land. As R. G. Price writes in The Ten Commandments, American History, and American Law, “Jefferson . . . repeatedly provided proof that Christianity and Mosaic law were not the basis of common law.” People need to know that, and learning what the Ten Commandments are and are not is a good way to begin the lesson.
Religious Literacy argues for intelligence and reason with regard to how we view religion in this country. It’s a sound argument, and it’s a fine book.