It’s thanks to both fortuitous timing and a compelling argument that Religious Literacy provides a much-needed breath of fresh air to the ongoing discussion of religion’s role in contemporary culture. As the recent spate of atheist books and media-sponsored “atheist vs. Christian” debates would often have us believe, religion inevitably leads to polarization, with reason (atheism) and faith (Christianity) existing squarely at irreconcilable odds with each other. With regard to America, this constructed dichotomy conveniently dovetails with the ongoing “cultural clash” between secular liberals and the religious Right, often leading to oversimplified and unfruitful ideas about why religion remains a vital and vexing force in American society. A prime example was ABC’s Nightline debate in early May between Ray Comfort-Kirk Cameron and members of the Rational Response Squad, where the overarching question of God’s exists became a pointless logic exercise as both sides failed to produce any creative intellectual arguments.
In the case of Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero—chair of Boston University’s religious studies department and author of the critically acclaimed 2003 book American Jesus—avoids taking theological sides, finding that “in the American marketplace of ideas, neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly.” Instead, his primary concern is that while religion is a driving force in American life, American citizens generally know very little about religion, and how this lack of knowledge impacts our civic duties and cultural understanding. As Prothero contends with the aid of several cited examples, our “religious illiteracy” is both pervasive and wide-ranging, with most adults and teenagers unable to identify any sacred texts of world religions other than Christianity (with the exception of the Koran), basic facts about Bible’s books and characters, and theological distinctions between Protestant denominations.
This is particularly true in the case of teenagers, who are growing up without learning basic religious facts, not to mention any definitive education about the historical and cultural impact of religion, thanks to textbook politics and teachers that are (often mistakenly) afraid of violating the First Amendment. Perhaps the best illustration of this ignorance is the inclusion of a 15-question quiz on world religions that Prothero first gave to his undergraduate students in the spring of 2006. With questions such as “Name a sacred text of Hinduism, the quiz (which I thoroughly flunked at home, putting me in the same category as 89 percent of his students) backs his assertion that high school textbooks and curricula treat religion as “something that disappears with the rush of modernity,” implying that the world has been mostly secular since the mid-18th century.
As a result, Prothero presents a brief, sweeping historical account to argue that religion was once the “fourth R” in American education, and warrants a similar type of importance today. From the Puritans to the early 19th century, best-selling textbooks such as The New England Primer provided students “not only basic literacy in English but also basic literacy in Calvinism,” while at home, parents used Bible stories to teach their children how to read. Yet beginning with the American Revolution, there were both religious and secular motivations behind literacy efforts, as reading became an act of liberty in the new republic that encouraged tremendous growth in literacy rates. Consequently, Prothero considers this era as an “Eden” period for religious literacy because of its strong civic role and how it sustained the “chains of memory” that citizens used to pass religious knowledge to future generations.
In contrast, while the Second Great Awakening of the 1800s-1830s produced millions of converts to evangelical Protestant Christianity, it marked the beginning of the “Fall,” where several factors—including “spiritual anti-intellectualism” and the general reduction of religious theology to ethics and morality—gradually led to the disappearance of religious literacy from public schools and higher education. It is this section that Prothero’s account almost becomes too sweeping, perhaps due to his ambitious goals in what is not a lengthy book. For example, there is no real discussion about the influence of Enlightenment principles such as rationalism upon Protestants during the Second Great Awakening, and how those principles would help shape the anti-intellectual trends that he cites, including the conflation of religion with moral intuition. While writing histories for a broad audience almost always involves finding a delicate balance between subject detail and accessibility, this section in particular could have allowed for more of the former without sacrificing the latter.
Prothero’s subsequent proposals for promoting religious literacy are stronger in comparison, though potential drawbacks exist. Despite its brevity, there’s little fault with his “dictionary of religious literacy,” which covers a variety of religious terms—all of them contextually relevant to Americans—in around 85 pages. With regard to public education, he contends that since teaching about religion is both “constitutional and imperative,” two required courses for high school students—one on the Bible and one on world religions—are necessary to “prepare students for citizenship in a world in which religion matters.” I find this quite agreeable, but the question of implementation is another matter entirely.
Prothero is justified to point out that there is certainly room to adjust school curricula for such classes, yet in an era where standardized testing, budget cuts and inequalities, and increasing competition for college admissions dominate education concerns, one has to wonder if most school corporations share the same opinion. Similarly, while he takes the long view towards the First Amendment-related lawsuits that are a probable byproduct of offering such classes (“…after these lawsuits are decided, parents and teachers adjust and life goes on”), it will require time, money, and more than a little patience to ensure the avoidance of sectarianism.
Nevertheless, these are minor criticisms, as Religious Literacy presents a convincing case for the importance of understanding religious beliefs in today’s society. Just as importantly, Prothero’s call for a reexamination of religion’s value from a secular perspective cuts through the stark dichotomies that comprise much of the media’s current discourse about religion. Regardless of whether America becomes more or less faithful, it’s hard to argue the value of increasing our knowledge about religion for civic and social purposes.