Wednesday, August 1, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero, author of American Jesus and chair of the religion department at Boston University, believes there is a crisis at hand in America. The crisis is the lack of religious literacy among America's citizens. His book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't, talks in length of the problem, and offers a solution. If only Americans knew more about the worlds religions, then society would be better off. Religion is all around us, and yet, no one talks about it, and no one knows anything about it. Why, we could have prevented WACO if we only gave Koresh enough time to decode the Seven Seals, rather then helping him fulfill his end times prophesy. A Sikh was shot by a man at a gas station after 9/11, because the man thought he was a Muslim. If only he knew the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim, this killing wouldn't have happened. Also post 9/11 problems, such as a lack of Arabic speaking people in the government, and no understanding of Islam (Bush said, "Islam is peace," Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist), could be solved with greater religious literacy. Another problem, but less severe, is that Americans don't "get" religious references made in books, movies, plays, television, or in politics. "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." George W. Bush quoted the bible in his first inaugural address, but even some members of the media were clueless and didn't know that Bush was referring to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan. "Shouldn't the people whose votes put them in office be able to understand what their elected officials are saying, to evaluate whether they are reading the Bible correctly or abusing it for partisan political purposes?," Prothero questions.

A third of Prothero's book is on the history of religion in America, basically how Protestantism spread, how Catholicism grew after years of oppression, various influxes of smaller religions, like Mormonism, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism and Taoism. This section is really well done. If you scratch your head and wonder how there are so many people who consider themselves, "Born again," this will explain how. If you've ever wondered what role religion has played in America's schools, this will tell you all about the heavily Protestant education students received until the years after the Civil War, when the goal of the public schools was to establish moral character, rather then indoctrinating students. Even then, this education was nonsectarian, but Protestant in practice. America moves further away from religious literacy by popularizing Jesus after the Civil War, changing sola scriptura to sola Jesus, or the Bible alone, to Jesus alone. This new American Jesus changes with the times. Preachers were very successful when "Preaching Christ," rather then preaching the Bible. This led Christianity in America to be more about raising moral Christians then raising Christians who knew the Bible, memorized commandments, prayers, or Catechism's. Once Christianity is focused on morals, the unity with Judaism, with similar morals, is easy enough, and before you know it, America is a Judeo-Christian nation, and now a Judeo-Christian-Islamic nation.

The next third deals with the question, "How to solve the problem of religious literacy in America?" In short, Prothero prescribes two classes as the answer. Fitting as he is a teacher, and a teacher of religion, no less. He orders one dose of Biblical study, and one dose of World Religion study, in public high schools. The Bible must be taught apart from other religions because it is so important to American culture. He believes you can't be a good citizen without a strong knowledge of the stories in the Bible. But, because we live in a global society, we need a course on World Religions as well. This should cover the seven major religions of the world-Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These courses would be repeated in greater depth in secondary courses as well. In both cases, the courses should be mandatory. Parents can choose to opt their children out of any course which they find offensive.

If you are afraid this will create an American Theocracy where the Bible is given strong emphasis over the beliefs of minority religions in America, or that Prothero's Proposal is unconstitutional, Prothero has thought of that. Proper certification and training will be necessary for anyone teaching these courses on religion. The classes aren't unconstitutional, as they don't endorse, or support any one particular religion. He believes there is a difference between teaching doctrine, and teaching about religion. He contends that the current philosophy, that religion should not be made a mandatory subject, is unconstitutional, in that it supports a religion of secular humanism above all others. But, with proper training, teachers will be able to control their inner Sunday school teacher, or their inner atheist, and objectively teach religion. I think the controversy is understated, even though most Americans support teaching about world religions, and about using the Bible in literature, history, and social studies classes. While I feel that knowledge of Biblical stories is helpful to keep politicians and the media in check when they use or misuse scripture to suit their own means, the Bible is tricky, because different sects treat the Bible differently, based on their faith. This could be difficult when testing about certain books or stories. There is a problem with teaching the Bible objectively, in that no matter how it is taught, the students will be arguing about the interpretations of passages, each arguing from their own sects foundations, and the outsiders will be looking for inaccuracies to criticise the believers. The teacher can not criticise the Bible, and can't preach either. That is such a fine line, I don't know if it's possible at this time in American history, to do so widely across the country. Would a class on the Bible be taught the same in New York as in Alabama?

The last third of the book is a dictionary of religious terms every American should be familiar with. It contains an emphasis on Christian characters and stories, but you'll also be taught the sacred texts of Hinduism, and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Here is where Prothero's bias comes out. He tries to be objective, prefacing certain definitions with, "according to Christianity," or "according to Islam," however, tends to skip this preface when speaking about Christian subjects. That may be nitpicking, but highlights how difficult it is to be completely impartial when discussing religion, even when taking care to be objective.

Americans don't know anything about religion, even their own. The side effects are that those in power can misuse scripture, we don't understand why world cultures do what they do, and we don't understand our own cultural history. While Prothero's goal is noble, it may be too little, too late for America. Prothero describes himself as religiously confused, but still attends Lutheran services. His Protestantism echoes through this book, but that should be understood as his unique background, and explains any bias which may be in his book. While you may not agree with Prothero's Proposal, this book is valuable in describing the history of religion in America, and why things are the way they are today. Religious Literacy is published by HarperSanFrancisco and is available in most book stores, and as an audiobook.


Mai said...

I don't think I'm nitpicking when I ask how he could list the 'seven major religions of the world' and leave out the world's fifth largest religion, Sikhism?

This needs to be corrected.

Bjorn Watland said...

Well, to be fair, he did leave room for regional uniqueness with regards to the World Religion 101 courses. But, no matter what, the choice of which religions to cover will leave out teaching about a certain minorities faith. In Prothero's book, adherents of Sikhism number about 20 million, with about 250,000 in the US. By that count, there are more Sikhs then Jews, but Prothero may argue that Judaism, as the basis for Christianity and Islam, has been more historically important. That, and there are roughly 5.2 million Jews in the US and 5 million in Israel. He may feel that pushing out Sikhism in favor for Judaism is justified because in the US Jews are more prevalent, and media coverage of events in Israel are more common then India.

That said, should the number of adherents play a part in the study of religious literacy? Wouldn't that provide a level of ignorance as well, to leave out Jainism, Scientology, and Juche? Just to cover the basics of differing religions should be enough, so when someone talks about Jainism, you know what they are talking about.

JKC said...

One disadvantage to religious instruction, even though I like it (but I'm not so sure about making it mandatory), is that many people, when they've taken a short "crash-course" in this or that theology or a "sampler" course of world religions like Prothero proposes, they begin to consider themselves educated, not realizing that the adherents of the various traditions dedicate their entire lives to the study of their doctrines without reaching definitive answers on the questions that such smapler courses often answer superficially and glibly. A related problem is that when people think they have some authority on a topic, they often begin to tell the adherents of the religion what they believe instead of letting them define it themselves. How arrogant can you get? But I see it all the time.

I'm all for education of almost any kind. And religious literacy is great for lots of reasons. But sometimes I wonder if maybe its better to let people be ignorant rather than giving them a reason to deceive themselves into thinking they aren't ignorant.

Bjorn Watland said...

That is the big problem, if you talk about what a particular sect believes, no matter how narrow the definition, you'll still find people who consider themselves followers of that sect who don't agree. I'm sure you can find adherents of Lutheranism who may not believe in the divinity of Jesus, on one extreme, and those who will argue about using grape juice rather then wine for communion on the other.

I doubt you'd get the same answers to ten theological questions of any religious group's members, no matter how small their membership is.

The problem is shown when atheists who have read the Koran, and picked out the parts about being noble to kill yourself for the cause of Islam, and say that Islam is a religion of war. While that is what scripture says, how it is interpreted by followers is different, and each individual walks away with their own unique beliefs. That why dialog is so important, not this passive, read what scripture is out there, and have that be the end of that. That is like being tried for a crime, and the only defense you have is some journal you wrote in high school when you were angry at the world.