Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't

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by Stephen Prothero

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The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

  • Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life's basic questions,

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The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

  • Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life's basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.

Despite this lack of basic knowledge, politicians and pundits continue to root public policy arguments in religious rhetoric whose meanings are missed—or misinterpreted—by the vast majority of Americans.

"We have a major civic problem on our hands," says religion scholar Stephen Prothero. He makes the provocative case that to remedy this problem, we should return to teaching religion in the public schools. Alongside "reading, writing, and arithmetic," religion ought to become the "Fourth R" of American education.

Many believe that America's descent into religious illiteracy was the doing of activist judges and secularists hell-bent on banishing religion from the public square. Prothero reveals that this is a profound misunderstanding. "In one of the great ironies of American religious history," Prothero writes, "it was the nation's most fervent people of faith who steered us down the road to religious illiteracy. Just how that happened is one of the stories this book has to tell."

Prothero avoids the trap of religious relativism by addressing both the core tenets of the world's major religions and the real differences among them. Complete with a dictionary of the key beliefs, characters, and stories of Christianity, Islam, and other religions, Religious Literacy reveals what every American needs to know in order to confront the domestic and foreign challenges facing this country today.

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Editorial Reviews

Religious ignorance can be as dangerous as fundamentalist bellicosity, according to scholar Steven Prothero, who asserts that the United States is both "one of the most religious countries on earth" and also "a nation of religious illiterates." Exploring the dangers of widespread religious ignorance in a world saturated with issues of faith and belief, Prothero makes a forceful though sure to be controversial case for teaching world religions in public schools. Smart, straight to the point, offering clear, fascinating examples and sensible solutions, this is one of the most intelligent approaches to the subject of religion in a long time.

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Religious Literacy

Chapter One

A Nation of Religious Illiterates

Both the Religious Right and the Secular Left feel besieged. In the Left Behind novels popular in conservative Christian circles, true believers are "raptured" into heaven at the end of times; everyone else is "left behind." Today secularists are attesting to a Last Days scenario of another sort, in which the old order of reason, rights, and the separation of church and state is being replaced by a new medievalism in which the president and his acolytes answer to God rather than to the American people. This disquiet can be heard in port cities across the country, but it is particularly palpable in Manhattan, the mecca of the Secular Left, where many report that their island is starting to feel, well, like an island again, cut off from the heartland by (among other things) its cosmopolitanism. At least for New Yorkers, it is as if the iconic Saul Steinberg cartoon of the United States according to Manhattan—an image that looks west across Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River and New Jersey to a Kansas City the size of a yellow cab and a Los Angeles no bigger than a courier's bicycle—is eerily mutating into a Grant Wood landscape, its bucolic foreground anchored not by yellow cabs but by the corn rows and church spires of Kansas, with nary a skyscraper on the horizon. "I feel assaulted," one New Yorker told me. "I feel like these Christians are hiding a crucifix in their shoe. Any minute they'll pull it out and gut you."28

Bill O'Reilly of The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News feels assaulted too. Whereas secularists are sure that theReligious Right has taken over US politics, he is morally certain that "secular progressives" are winning the culture wars. Christmas is "under siege," O'Reilly says. An "anti-Christian jihad" is banishing Christmas trees from holiday parades, Christmas carols from public school pageants, and Christmas greetings from department stores. In the world according to O'Reilly, the ultimate aim of these criminalizers of Christmas is nothing less than banishing religion from the public square and thereby clearing the way for "secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage." Televangelist Jerry Falwell also believes that "radical secularists" are "aggressively attempting to redefine America in their own Godless image," and religious broadcaster Pat Buchanan complains about "hate crimes against Christianity." The mission of the Secular Left, concludes Buchanan, is "to expunge from the public life of the West all reminders that ours was once a Christian civilization and America once a Christian country."29

The emotions on both sides of this question are understandable, though the irony of the situation—in which each camp sees itself as a victim and believes that the other is seizing control of the country—seems lost on everyone concerned. The fact of the matter is that, in the American marketplace of ideas, neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly. Though O'Reilly may rage, Christmas (which remains a national holiday) is not fading into that good night. And theocracy—in the true sense of church-run government—is not even a twinkle in the Bush administration's eye. Much ink has been spilled, and many megabytes expended, trying to pigeonhole the nation into either "secular America" or "Christian America." It has always been both.

The United States is by law a secular country. God is not mentioned in the Constitution, and the First Amendment's establishment clause forbids the state from getting into the church business. However, that same amendment also includes a free exercise clause safeguarding religious liberty, and Americans have long exercised this liberty by praying to God, donating to religious congregations, and hoping for heaven. So there is logic not only to President John Adams's affirmation in the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796 that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion" but also to the Supreme Court's 1892 observation that "this is a Christian nation." In short, the long-standing debate about whether the United States is secular or religious is fundamentally confused. Thanks to the establishment clause, the US government is secular by law; thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice.30

Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious. Church and state have never been completely separated in the United States; religion and politics were bedfellows from the start. Traditional liberals such as the political philosopher John Rawls insist that religion restrict itself to the individual heart, the pious home, and the religious congregation; religion is a private matter that will contaminate civil society if not quarantined from public life. Because religion is a "conversation stopper," political discourse must be conducted entirely in terms of "public reason," which by definition excludes religious reasons. According to this strict separationist perspective, the wall between church and state is supposed to form, as one nineteenth-century activist once put it, "a barrier high and eternal as the Andes." The only alternative is "politics as holy war."31

George W. Bush caught a lot of flak for disrespecting this church-state divide at his 2001 inauguration, which included one prayer offered by the Reverend Franklin Graham (Billy's son) in the name of "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit" and another offered by the United Methodist minister Kirbyjon Caldwell "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus, the Christ." But Bush's sin was also committed, in flagrante delicto, by Bill Clinton, whose inaugurations were unabashedly Christian affairs. Clinton's 1997 fete included a trinitarian prayer by Billy Graham, a benediction by a black Baptist preacher, and songs by no fewer than three gospel groups (one called the Resurrection Choir). Plainly, the celebrated wall of separation between church and state has never been particularly wide or sturdy. Breached nearly as often as it has been respected, this wall resembles a rickety picket fence far more than the eternal Andes. Washington and Madison, Reagan and Clinton all declared national days of prayer or thanksgiving, and the Supreme Court still opens its sessions with "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." As G. K. Chesterton once put it, the United States has long been "a nation with the soul of a church."32

Religious Literacy. Copyright © by Stephen Prothero. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Bruce Feiler
“Smart but gentle, loving but blunt, Prothero is uniquely qualified to guide us through the fraught fields of faith.”
Lauren F. Winner
“A compelling, provocative, wholly innovative historical interpretation of the place of learning in American religious life. I love this book!”

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Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I think the author was correct in his view that Americans claim they are very religious but don't really know much about it. I agree with his view that it is important to teach religion in school. You need to learn religion not to believe any one religion specifically but that you need it to understand the world. I am not sure about everything he claims, such as Protestantism was more of a reason religion was taken out of school than secularism. However, even where I am not in complete agreement with the author I thing he makes some good points. He also,has a religion test in the book in which I knew all about the Christian religion but not as much as I assumed when it came to other world religions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I went to school 20 years ago, we all needed to study comparative history and comparative religious history. Today somehow schools no longer require it. I am not a proponent of pushing someone to one side or another when it comes to religion - we are all entitled our own decision, but knowledge about other's perspective and background is key. Prothero's book is an excellent read - it is well written, even funny at times. The glossary of terms at the end it itself is worth the money. I have recommended it to a half dozen friends who have also had great things to say about it - and it has brought a lot to the table for us to discuss.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book does a great job of going back and reviewing the history of how we got to such a lack of religious education in this country. The answers certainly surprised me. Also surprising is how open our schools could be to religious education if we were to stick to teaching not preaching, and yet how few schools actually choose to do so. I was as much surprised at my lack of understanding of the first amendment as I was my lack of knowledge of faiths other than my own. A great historical review as well as just the spur many need to brush up on their religious knowledge and maybe learn a few things about another religion.
Guest More than 1 year ago
both an enjoyable read, and a thought provoking discussion of the importance of religious literacy in the united states. as our world gets ever smaller, it seems even more important to understand our traditions, and those of others, as clearly as possible. i find prothero's discussion fair and open minded, in no sense does he 'choose sides' or pass judgement. also full of interesting antecdotes. its a quick read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding, compelling piece, exposing our American underbelly of religious illiteracy. Don't read it and give it away. It deserves to be on your desk next to Webster's, the dictionary at the back is terrific, and so good to keep it near and learn a few 'facts' every day. Also recommended are more books to make us smarter religiously. The author's successful intent is to expose the problem, and give ways to fix us to be better and more aware citizens. Worthy goals, an excellent book, and so easy to read.
random_skeptic More than 1 year ago
Interesting Argument I found Prothero's book to be very informative. I had not pondered very much on the subject of "Religious Literacy" in our country. His basic contention is that in order to really understand our country and the world as a whole we must have some kind of knowledge of the religious beliefs of our fellow national and world citizens. In fact, he believes it's essential to have such basic knowledge. The book is divided primarily into two parts. The first part provides historical background to the importance and influence of religion in the United States and also includes his primary argument. The second part is a dictionary of religious literacy. Overall, I feel the book was well written and that the author clearly expressed his argument. I particularly liked the dictionary of religious literacy at the end of the book. I learned a great deal just be reading that section. However, he does give the impression that he laments the "good ole days" when Protestant Christianity dominated much of our national culture. Especially, Protestant Christianity that focused on exgesis and doctrine. He seems a bit critical of Evangelicalism not to mention Secularism. Nevertheless, the book was extremely informative and I would certainly recommend it.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I appreciated the historical context of how we got to this place - where the majority of the country doesn't know the basics about their own religion much less the religions of people they interact with every day. I also tend to agree with the premise that this should be a topic reinstated in the school system 'as unpopular an idea that may be'. But what I would have liked to have seen in this book is more information regarding the what the basic principles of the major religions are. This book felt very one-note and I was hoping for more enlightenment.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up at B&N a week ago, thinking it would add to my already well stocked group of books on related subjects. Then I did a mental check of the opening quiz which the author says he gave to some students. I considered myself religiously literate, but I missed two questions entirely! I had been exposed to the information in college, but I had not needed any recall of that kind of information since then. This is what solidified my selection of this book on a book buying spree for my birthday, it forced me to look beyond related faiths and outside my comfort zone. I had to actually think! What a nice surprise. Upon reading the book, which is structured for easy reading I discovered that there are no concrete set of 10 commandments. Interesting! I had to pick up my various Bibles and check out why. There were for me several other bits of info even though I did know the first books of the Bible, and I knew the names of the Gospels. (I would not have been able to list which were synoptic, or how they differ from each other, etc.) I was slightly disappointed though, with the authors call to action or solution to the issue. He did not, in my opinion set up a truely viable methodology for folks who care to effectively work on the issue. He identified it very well, from historical references to present day. He said what he thought could be a solution, but he did not give a 'battle plan' of sorts. Perhaps he is saving that for another book. This book is well worth reading for anyone who is concerned with morality in America, and one of the contributing factors underpining a structure of morality is our basics in religious education, in this case beyond Christianity to include most of the major religions of the world. He also gives a very abreviated explaination of American Christian criteria and beliefs, which is where my knowledge fell a bit short. I highly recommend this book. Paul Swanson
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great book on all religious views. Easy read while still enlightening and educational
cbocangel More than 1 year ago
very informative, not something fun to read, but I liked it because I did learn new things from it! I would recommend it to anyone who is interested about learning a little bit more about religions.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It seems you can't bash any group in the United States, unless they're white men or Christians. This book's dictionary entry for the Bible mentions Thomas Paine's view that the Bible was, 'a book of lies'. This book's dictionary entry for the Quran, on the other hand, is wholly positive, with no scholar's dissenting opinion. The entry also mentions that certain Christian groups have had problems with the Quran. The section on the Quran leaves you feeling the Quran is without fault but intolerant others (American Christians) have unfounded problems with it. How does 'religious literacy' work when criticism of certain faiths has to be done with the gloves on, so as not to offend? But don't take my word for it, read those two entries in a bookstore and make up your own mind. (I would recommend either book by Hirsi Ali for a scholar's dissenting opinion on the Quran.)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was hoping to learn about the world's religious from this book. The last chapter lists terms that were somewhat educational, although it is like reading a dictionary or brief encyclopedia entries. However, most of the book contains poorly constructed arguments for why we should know more about religion. Indeed, Stephen Prothero's writing is arrogant. For instance, he refers to a biblical reference by President Bush in a speach and is amazed that a CBS commentator didn't understand the refernce. Rather than explain the biblical reference to the reader, Mr. Prothero assumes that the reader would be as shocked as he is that the CBS commentator is not a biblical scholar. The reader is left wondering what President Bush's biblical reference meant.