July 9, 2008
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know- and Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero
Perhaps this book is preaching to the choir when I picked it up- I am pretty knowledgeable about various religions, though there’s always more I could learn. But I’m well aware that my knowledge and literacy is above average- I just didn’t realize how much! Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies realized the extent of this ignorance when he encountered college freshmen who didn’t know things he thought of as common knowledge, like the story of Noah & the ark, Moses, and the Sermon on the Mount, let alone basics of world religions like the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. (This reminds me a bit of Prof. Alfred Kinsey who realized his students didn’t know very basic info about sex!)
It wasn’t always like this- Prothero details the United States’ robust history of religious learning, how the early schools were all sectarian. Even when public schools were started the textbooks were filled with Biblical references and theological lessons. Colleges and universities were founded primarily as places to educate future clergy, and all students were instructed in theology. But as the country become more religiously diverse, it became more difficult to have religious themed curricula. Since denominations couldn’t agree on theology, ethics was emphasized more, in fact religion was boiled down to just ethics. In higher education religion came into conflict with the growth of science, and it was seen as enemy to intellectual freedom and inquiry. Finally as more concern over church & state separation arose, religion was pushed even further out.
Prothero doesn’t want us to go back to the days of singing hymns in classrooms, or leading students in prayer. But by neglecting the teaching of such an integral part of American and global culture, language, music, history and politics we ill-prepare students to deal with the world as it really is. High school and college students should all take a course on world religions-Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism and another on Christianity and the Bible. He supports this with Supreme Court decisions that have determined that teaching about religion is constitutional- as opposed to making judgments about which religion is right (or if all of them are wrong) I definitely agree these things ought to be taught. He makes the point that giving all religions equal time as some liberals argue makes no sense, students need to know more about larger religions they’re more likely to run into, like Christianity.
I learned a lot from this book about the history of religious literacy and it made me realize how secular my upbringing was, despite being brought up going to church/Sunday school. Growing up I took it for granted that discussion of religion was taboo in school. But as a student at a Lutheran-affiliated college I was required to take classes in religion. No one told me what I had to believe, but I found it was a great opportunity to learn more.
To put on my Pagan hat, I realize that Prothero is talking about “world religions”- not New Religious Movements (NRMs) that Paganism would be classified under. But at the same time, I’m rather miffed that his Glossary of Religious Concepts all Americans Should Know included Scientology (a pyramid scheme that somehow managed to get status as a church) but not modern Paganism, which a lot more people follow, and gets more press.