Book Review: Religious Literacy

“Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t” by Stephen Prothero

Before getting to the review itself, spend few moments taking Dr. Prothero’s religious literacy quiz. The answers are on the second page, but see how many questions you can answer correctly before checking your work. If you’re willing to share your results (I’ll share mine at the end of this post), leave them in the comments section. TAKE THE QUIZ

Stephen Prothero is chair of the religion department at Boston University. The above quiz is one that he has used to gauge what he calls “religious literacy” among students in his religious studies classes. Though the results from his students were poor, they are much better than what studies have shown among the American population-at-large.

This book is Prothero’s response to what he sees as an epidemic of religious illiteracy. Though America is one of the most religious nations in the world — both in diversity of religions and sects and in number of adherents of some system of belief — most of our citizens fail to demonstrate a passing knowledge of the main tenets of their own religion, to say nothing of the beliefs of our fellow citizens.

The book is split up into three main sections. The first identifies the problem, the second details how the problem developed, and the third is Prothero’s proposal for rectifying the situation. Each section has two chapters.

In the introduction and opening chapter, Prothero begins by explaining the difference between theology (“doing religion”) and religious studies (“learning about religion”). This book is clearly the latter, with no specific religion or sect being affirmed or denied. The author’s thesis is primarily a civic problem, and therefore ought to be the concern of every citizen. We are shown that, while Americans tend to be very vocal in expressing their faith, they tend to be extremely anti-intellectual (a point also strongly emphasized in Ravi Zacharias’ recent book, Beyond Opinion), arguing from a point of ignorance regarding their own Scripture has to say about a given issue (what Romans 10:2 describes as “zeal without knowledge”). Several prominent research studies are cited for evidence of our illiteracy. For instance, though the Bible is the all-time bestselling book, and nearly every American household contains at least one copy, only a very small percentage have ever actually read it.

The second chapter shows how this is a civic problem, and why we should be concerned. Nearly every aspect of society involves religion in some way. Wars are fought because of religion. Elections are won and lost because of religion. Laws are passed because of religion. Those who do not know about their own religion cannot engage in informed debate, and those who don’t know (or care to know) about the religious beliefs of others simply cannot be good neighbors.

The middle section is the true strength of this book. Here Prothero gives a very detailed, historically accurate depiction of our nation’s religious past. Chapter three chronicles the reasons the first European settlers came to the New World, and the fervor with which they set about incorporating their Christian beliefs into every aspect of society. We see the way that the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers affected the establishment of the United States, as well as how those religious beliefs differed from those of the first Pilgrims. As the nation grew larger, it also grew more religiously diverse, but for much of the 17th & 18th centuries, the New World was “the most literate place on Earth”, driven by the belief that nothing was more important than the ability to read and understand the Bible.

Chapter four shows how the nation slowly regressed from this great literacy to our current illiterate state. Ironically, much of this loss of literacy, as well as the removal of a religious emphasis in the schools, was the result of squabbles between religious leaders, not secularists as many believe today. This goes much deeper than prayer being taken out of schools in the 1960’s. Even in the early 19th century there are reports of teachers lamenting their inability to teach adequately the religious beliefs that had defined the nation.

In both of these historical chapters, Prothero sticks to facts. He does not attempt to paint a rosy picture of America’s Christian heritage, nor does he deny it. Whatever personal bias he may have (and he does hint at it occasionally in other parts of the book) are left out of this section, making this one of the very best concise, objective histories of American religion I’ve read.

The fifth chapter is Prothero’s proposed solution. He advocates religious studies courses in all public primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities. Several court cases are cited differentiating between teaching about religion (which is legal) and the teaching of religion (which is not). He recommends courses in the Bible-as-literature as well as introductory courses in world religions (emphasizing religions that may be particularly common to a given area). His ideas are quite practical, though perhaps a little over-ambitious… they would require a complete overhaul of the educational system (classes can’t be added without taking away others).

The final chapter actually takes up nearly half of the book. It is a “Dictionary of Religious Literacy”, containing definitions of major doctrines and key terms in the world’s major religions. While not exactly the sort of material one would read straight through, this chapter alone makes the book a valuable resource to be added to your personal library.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book. While I do not fully agree with Prothero’s solution (an academic religious education is important, but not sufficient; parents have the responsibility to educate children according to the worldview they want to pass on, and public schools are not the place for this to happen), I could not agree more with his assessment of the problem. I appreciate a logical, systematic presentation of facts which allows me to form my own opinion of the information, and that is exactly what this book provides.

As far as my answers to the quiz at the beginning of the post… I scored a 93% (using the grading scale included in the book). This would have been lower had I not very recently studied the four Noble Truths of Buddhism! I only remembered three of them, and missed three out of the seven Catholic sacraments. I don’t say this to brag, but to prove at least to some extent Dr. Prothero’s point. I took a very excellent course on world religions in college!

This is a highly recommended read. Buy this book here.

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