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

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

by Stephen Prothero


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060859527
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/11/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 418,000
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.86(d)

About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and God Is Not One and a professor of religion at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, NPR, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, The Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Slate, and other publications. Visit the author at or follow his tweets @sprothero.

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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.

Table of Contents

Introduction     1
The Problem
A Nation of Religious Illiterates     27
Religion Matters     49
The Past
Eden (What We Once Knew)     73
The Fall (How We Forgot)     109
The Proposal
Redemption (What to Do?)     155
A Dictionary of Religious Literacy     185
Religious Literacy Quiz     293
Further Reading     299
Acknowledgments     303
Notes     307
Index     353

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 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 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.
reannon on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Prothero, a professor of religious studies, argues that the level of knowledge in the U.S. about religions of the world is dangerously low, with an appalling ignorance of how religion has shaped history, religion, and public policy. He traces the history of religion in the U.S. and believes that the lack of knowledge about religious doctrines and beliefs began with the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, which emphasized feelings over thought, the spiritual experience over religious study, and the direct experience of the believer over the mediation function of clergy. During the latter part of the 19th century, public schools became more secular.The latter part of the book is a dictionary of religious literacy. Prothero doesn't attempt to be comprehensive, but to introduce the aspects of the major world religions that are most often the subject of public debate. I consider myself fairly knowledgeable, but I learned a good bit from the dictionary. Where I fault Prothero the most is that he completely ignores modern Paganism and Wicca. Naturally I'm biased, since I am Pagan, but I do believe that the impact that Paganism, especially Wicca, has had on popular culture, the high degree of misunderstanding about it, and the debates over how it is handled in the military, for example, make it worthy of inclusion.Nevertheless, an interesting and useful book.
MarthaHuntley on LibraryThing 3 months ago
This is a good book for discussion; not so good a book for reading. You have to read it to discuss it, but it is awkward, repetitious reading. The ideas and history presented, however, are well worth discussing, even debating.
crazybatcow on LibraryThing 3 months ago
The title is a bit misleading. It *is* about the things that Americans don't know about religions, but it doesn't spend any time teaching anything. i.e. he states that "we" don't know that Moses wasn't asked to sacrifice his son (but he doesn't clarify what Moses really did, or who actually was asked to sacrifice his son).So, the first half of the book states the multitude of things that Americans (he means Westerners I think) don't know about any given aspect of any given religion (the books of the Bible, the Hindu texts, the tenets of Buddhism) but doesn't enlighten the reader with any answers.The 2nd half of the book is a dictionary of religious terms/items so I suppose this is where you'd go to find out the many things that you were told in the first half that you didn't know.I don't like reading dictionaries as educational material. I'm also not too fond of being given a list of stuff I'm too stupid to already know, without the teller bothering to correct me where I'm wrong.
AuntieClio on LibraryThing 3 months ago
The most useful thing in this book is the Dictionary of Religious Literacy, which describes terms and titles associated with the major world religions in addition to explaining some of the basic differences between Christian denominations. I found this the most entertaining part. The rest of the book is a good solid discussion of why religious literacy matters in society, with a history of how it came to be and where it went. Turns out we can¿t really blame the secular progressives on the left for the expulsion of religious literacy from our public classrooms. Prothero also offers his solution to changing this illiteracy, acknowledging it will be difficult because sometimes the fine line between education about religion and proselytizing can be blurred easily.Prothero¿s argument for religious literacy makes sense when we realize that so much of our very language is built upon allusions from scriptures of the world¿s religions, especially the Bible (of which there are several versions depending upon the denomination one belongs to). Art, architecture, literature and most especially, history have all been touched by religion and I believe, as Prothero posits, that a more religiously literate society can only mean a more informed citizenry.I would have liked to have seen a bibliography instead of just the footnotes, of which there were several pages. I would also have liked to have seen a more comprehensive ¿Suggested Reading¿ list. What I¿m really looking for is a good comparative religion/Christian denominations book which delineates the differences and explains the history of each.
catalogthis on LibraryThing 3 months ago
The subtitle is somewhat misleading. I thought this would be a kind of Cliff's Notes guide to world religions, combined with real-world examples of current events viewed within a religious context.Prothero could write that kind of book -- in the introduction, he describes the 1993 ATF/FBI raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco as "a case of death by religious ignorance." He speculates that if the FBI or White House had consulted an expert in apocalyptic Christianity, perhaps the siege may not have ended in fire.That kind of analysis does not extend beyond the introduction, though. Prothero spends the majority of the book explaining the history of religious education in America, from the Puritans through the Scopes monkey trial.For me, the most valuable part of the book is the 100-page Dictionary of Religious Literacy, which offers concise yet illuminating definitions on such topics as Shiite Islam vs. Sunni Islam, and the differences between evangelicalism and fundamentalism.
BiblioFrog on LibraryThing 3 months ago
Everyone should know their religious history. This helps us understand the debate about separation of church and state, teaching religion in public schools, and helps us to know ourselves.
Madcow299 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Excellent book on the downfall of America's religious literacy. There could have been more on the solution to this problem in the book, but I feel the author leaves that vague because he understands that a solution would need to be tailored to the community.
Sandydog1 on LibraryThing 5 months ago
A concise treatment of current American religious illiteracy (and problems associated with it), a detailed history of American religion and suggestions for improvement. At the end is a glossary of important world religious terms.
kaelirenee on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Despite being one of the most religious countries in the world, Americans know pitifully nothing about their religions. Not only do they not understand the tennents that they base their faith on, Americans don't know enough about other religions to understand world politics, enough about Christianity to understand political statements, our own history, or literary allusions (the entire time, I kept thinking about my college roommate who had to ask me (a Pagan) who Job is). He emphisizes, rightly, that the Supreme Court has, time and time again, reminded teachers that, while they cannot promote or preach religion, they are allowed to teach it.While I agree completely with Prothero's dismaying statements about the woeful lack of understanding of the various religions out there, I don't view his solution as practical. Having a full year of religion education (one semester of the Bible, one semester of world religions) would be great, except for the fact that he glosses over the lack of time, funding, or ability to teach it properly. If religion is taught in classrooms, I am not afraid that all teachers will suddenly start prosletysing to students. I am afraid that all the interest and intrigue will be yanked out of religious study the same way it has been squeezed from the study of history in high schools (see Lies My Teacher Told Me)-or literature, or math, or evolution, or any other topic that is so facinating and important that gets the guts ripped out or gets taught to the lowest intellegence level in the classroom.
awhayouseh on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Prothero favors rote memorization over and against "touchy-feeling" discussions on religious matters. He believes the emphasis on morality when teaching religion is one reason for the decline in religious knowledge in America. The glossary that the book provides is very helpful.
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