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Book Review: Religious Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero

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What would be a theological argument for God’s sense of humor? I think it is threefold. First, God gave imperfect Man free will (this is Arminian and not Calvinist thought). That alone should be evidence enough. Second, God entrusted his Word to imperfect Man with free will to be written down and declared by that imperfect Man with free will to be God’s inerrant Word (for Fundamentalists) and divinely inspired (for Evangelicals). Third, when the imperfect Man with free will reaches the age of 40 years, he or she can be both nearsighted and farsighted at the same time. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Having established God’s sense of humor, we can extrapolate a line of thought to consider God’s sense of irony. It turns out that this divine sense of irony is manifest in Stephen Prothero’s new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t. Prothero is chairman of the Religion Department at Boston University and the good professor spends a good deal of time putting a fine point on the supposition that, “The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.” His argument for the existence of this religious illiteracy is provocative and the results of such are grave.

Prothero’s approach to his discussion is fresh because he has no faith dog in this hunt. His degree is not in Divinity but Religious Studies. He is interested in the mechanics of religion, not its promise. Prothero correctly puts forth that ignorance of the history and doctrine of any religion is dangerous because of the highly charged environment in which religion exists – a setting in which there is a dangerously small window for both tolerance and misunderstanding. Plainly said, it is too easy to misinterpret doctrine, one’s own or others' to justify behavior. The author points out that this ubiquitous religious ignorance is not confined simply to the religion a given group practices, but also one group’s understanding and attitude toward other groups.

This prompts Prothero to put forth a civic education in religion be taught in school. He argues that teaching about religion is both constitutional and called for and that a common level of religious literacy will go a long way in promoting greater understanding and tolerance. Prothero lays out the reasons that lead to our religious ignorance and how we can address such ignorance and then supplies a brief dictionary of religious concepts that all should know in order to properly and intelligently discuss religion and its ramifications. Religious Literacy is a must read for anyone wanting to have any intelligent religious discourse.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • duane

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention C. Michael. It might have been helpful to provide a few examples of how religious illiteracy leads to intolerance among the faithful, or perhaps just some additional explication on your part. We can imagine such a thing happening, of course, but Prothero must have provided a few ‘case studies.’

    Religious studies sounds like a worthwhile inclusion in the curriculum. God knows there’s plenty of time for it, at least at my son’s middle school, where an inordinate amount of time is spent reviewing last year’s lessons in preparation for state testing. At what grade level does Prothero recommend these studies begin?

    I tend to dismiss the fundamental tenets of all religions in the abstract, but I am woefully ignorant of religious particulars outside Christianity, and even there I am barely conversant. Another victim of our educational system and too much TV. Read more? Yeah, OK. But still, it would have been useful to me to have a basic school-based grounding in religious studies at an early age.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/c__michael_bailey C. Michael Bailey

    Duane,

    Thank you for your kind comments. I did short change Prothero, who did provide several examples where religious illiteracy proves particularly grave. One example is in the jury room of a murder trial where a healthy discussion of sentence is taking place. One member of the jury quotes Leviticus 24:20 (NASB):

    “…fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; just as he has injured a man, so it shall be inflicted on him.”

    and the defendant was sentenced to death. This citation of the Old Testament Law is indirect conflict with the teaching of Jesus (whom conservative Christians claim to follow to the letter), who addresses the Law directly in Matthew 5:38-39 (NASB):

    “You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”

    Prothero points out this fallacy of reason and further discusses that cases like these caused the Bible to be prohibited in jury rooms. This is my particular favorite example because it proves Alexander Pope’s subjection that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

    Like you, I have a son in middle school and I was pleasantly surprised with his sixth grade history course presenting a historical treatment of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. The text used as tasteful and neutral in presentation. Prothero is not so specific about when religion should be taught, opting to infer that elementary school and beyond would be appropriate.

    It was thinking about my son’s experience that drew me to this book, but for reasons different than Prothero’s. I see in the current political climate a social need to be able to “talk the talk” regarding “Christian discourse.” When one hears Dr. James Dobson publicly questioning the Christian bona fides of presidential possibility Fred Thompson, one must know what those bona fides are or are perceived to be.

    With the current exacerbation of Evangelicalism in the United States there is far too great a danger of those expressing “Religious Certainty” to discriminate against those with something less. The major point that Prothero makes is that those with “Religious Certainty” are not necessarily (and are more often than not) the most knowledgeable about their own and other’s religious histories and doctrines. I promote that it is incumbent upon us as members of “Culture” to be properly educated on that “Culture” of which religion is a major element.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

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