Thursday, January 13, 2011

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

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't (2007) by Stephen Prothero, wasn’t quite what I expected, but still a worthwhile read. From the title, I thought it would be a broad overview of the world religions, with a chapter on Christianity, a chapter on Islam, a chapter on Hinduism, etc. What it turned out to be was a compelling argument for returning religious education to our school’s curriculum. (In Prothero's suggested Further Reading list, he recommends Huston Smith’s The World's Religions as a broad overview text, so that’s now on my to-read list.)
Prothero starts by pointing out the irony that Americans are both extremely religious, and extremely religiously ignorant. “(H)ere faith is almost entirely devoid of content,” meaning the majority of religious people in our country don’t even know what it is they supposedly believe. He emphasizes the difference between teaching religion, which is unconstitutional in public schools, and teaching about religion, which the Supreme Court has all but begged to have happen. 
Prothero is a professor of religious studies at Boston University and explains that the difference between theology and religious studies is like the difference between art and art history; theologians do religion while religious scholars study religion. He goes on to say, “My purpose is not to foster faith or to denigrate it... My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world where religion counts.” Just because someone else’s religion (or religion in general) doesn’t matter to you doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. While religion should stay in the private sphere, the fact is that it doesn’t, and even though academia may be becoming more godless, the voting and purchasing population as a whole is not. Religion is a potent social force, and it’s important to be informed.
I felt he spent a little too much time harping on how much Americans don’t know and was impatient for him to get to the real content of the book, which I thought was going to be to distill religious literacy. What I got instead was a history of religious education in the United States, from the Puritans to the Second Great Awakening to the Scopes trials to where we are today. 
In the past, religious knowledge was passed from one generation to the next through a chain of memory. People grew up being educated at the very least about the religion of their parents. Since Vatican II, Catholics no longer memorize the Baltimore Catechism and other faiths are doing much less to foster religious education. Sermons and Sunday School classes are more about feeling good and being nice than teaching doctrine. What was interesting to me about this was that Mormons are actually pretty good about keeping this chain of memory in tact. Families and individuals in the Church are supposed to read scriptures daily. Their Sunday Schools have a standardized curriculum and Mormon high school students go to seminary daily and then Institute in college. Most Mormons that I’ve known have a pretty good understanding of what their religion teaches.
Doctrine became less important in most religions as heart supplanted mind. Sects relinquished their distinguishing features to fight against common enemies (e.g. atheist communists). These days, Christians are divided less by individual sects than by liberals and conservatives, and fundamentalists are one of the few groups who actually care about doctrine anymore. As for other religions, Prothero says, “Most Americans in short remain far more committed to respecting other religions than to learning about them,” which he points out is empty: How can you really claim to respect something you don’t even understand?
Even though almost every major conflict in history has been at least partially religiously based, most history books are written as though religion doesn’t exist. After the Supreme Court banned prayer and devotional Bible reading in school, instead of moving to teaching about religion, we now teach around religion. Schools are afraid to touch the subject, which is understandable. Almost anything you say about religion is bound to upset somebody, no matter how fair and objective you try to be. But Prothero argues that acting as though religion doesn’t exist is hardly remaining neutral, and I think I would agree. Refusing to talk about religion feeds religious conservatives’ suspicions that our public schools have a secular agenda.
Key to the solution he proposes is training teachers who can competently teach about religion and who know the difference between educating and proselytizing. He would also like to see a course on the Bible and a course on the major world religions be part of the required curriculum for high school graduation. Skeptical as I am about getting the general population on board, these are changes I would love to see implemented. After reading his book, educating my own children about religion is certainly a few notches higher on my priority list.
The last chapter was a Dictionary of Religious Literacy, 83 pages of key terms Americans should be familiar with “to make sense of their country and their world.” It’s in alphabetical order, so that “Dalai Lama” and “David and Goliath” appear next to each other instead of in the context of the traditions to which they belong. I found some of it a bit confusing to just read through without further background knowledge, but it’s helpful for looking up terms that come up in the media but aren’t always clearly defined, like “Moral Majority” or “imam.” I got the book from the library, but am considering buying it to have the Dictionary as a reference.
My only real complaint is that I found the title misleading. Change it to something like Religious Literacy: How Americans Came to Be Religiously Ignorant--And Why That’s Bad.  Other than that, good book.  :-)


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  1. I read this book about a year ago. I definitely recommend it.

    By the way, I think you have a broken html tag next to your 'share' button underneath the post.

  2. Coming from someone with a mostly "godless" upbringing, it's not that religion doesn't count or that it doesn't exist. It is simply another _social_ element that factors into someone's upbringing, up there with where their family immigrated from, what language they speak at home, their political ideology, their family, or whatever. I wonder why the author feels that there may be a need for a course on the Bible AND a course on world religions. Why not cover the Bible in the general religion course? Is the Bible more holy or influential throughout history than other religions? I doubt it.

  3. And my reading list gets a bit larger once again ...

  4. Sounds like an interesting book, thanks for the review! I will have to add it to my ever-growing book list.

  5. I think I've said it before elsewhere, but my comparative religions class in high school is really what started me out the door from Mormonism and eventually (many years later) to atheism. It was really kind of a natural step out of believing in one religion in particular to starting to draw your own ideas about the nature of God. I believed for awhile that that there was one God (the God I'd worshipped all my life), but that God didn't really care which religion you followed (if any) so long as your heart was in the right place and your intentions were good and sincere. The importance of performing specific religious rituals really evaporated for me, and I became free to question everything about God.

    I would totally be in favor of requiring a comparative religion class in high school. It was some of the best stuff I learned in those four years.

  6. I like the premise that most Americans concentrate on respecting other religions, rather than learning about them. As a former Mormon, I've been criticized by non-Mormons for not "respecting" my former faith, when my lack of "respect" (as they call it) is grounded in facts they're not aware of.

    Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the well-written review!

  7. It really is pretty astonishing how ignorant most Americans are about religion, even about Christianity, considering how religious the country supposedly is.

    I do think comparative religion needs to be taught in schools. Religion study that focused on just one religion would be like linguistics classes that dealt with only one language. Mandating the inclusion of other religions would also inoculate religion classes against the danger of being abused by fundamentalists to carry out religious indoctrination.

  8. Dan Dennett has made a similar argument for the education of religion in schools. His line is "But just the facts." -- don't indoctrinate, but instead treat it like a real subject to study.

    I like his distinction between religious studies and theology. Very important difference. But I think I'd agree with you -- the title could do with an overhaul. Maybe the publisher had some influence on the title?

  9. Sounds like an interesting book, thanks for the review! I will have to add it to my ever-growing book list.


Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism