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Religious Literacy

by Stephen Prothero

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Religious Literacy

What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t

Book by Stephen Prothero


Barbara BuzzardReview by Barbara Buzzard

“Moreover, we may be at a tipping point where we are realizing that you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand…”

I was aghast at my first reading of this book. But on a slightly different level, I think I was even more aghast at my second reading. Scholar and Professor Prothero has chronicled well our descent into religious ignorance, but it is his well thought out deliberations as to how and why this has taken place that are for me riveting. For example: “Evangelical pollsters have lamented for some time the disparity between Americans’ veneration of the Bible and their understanding of it, painting a picture of a nation that believes God has spoken in scripture but can’t be bothered to listen to what God has to say.”[1] We are indeed a paradoxical nation in this regard. I hope you will find some of the following quotations as eye-opening and enlightening as I have. Prof. Prothero wrestles with how a nation can be deeply religious and profoundly ignorant (re: religion) at the same time. The answer is to me quite terrifying because it looks like deliberate rejection of intelligence and a closing of the Christian mind. Please see the book with this title.[2] I am afraid of ignorance and Prothero stresses over and over again how very dangerous it is. I am reminded of the statement by Dr. Richard Hiers in his book Jesus and the Future along the same lines: “Interpreters of Christian persuasion have ordinarily not been especially interested in what Jesus intended and did in his own life-time.” How staggering! Then what’s the point?!

In the publication Protestant-Catholic-Jew Will Herberg wrote, “The religion which actually prevails among Americans today has lost much of its authentic Christian (or Jewish) content.” He found that in conforming to the American culture the three above mentioned (Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism) became “so empty and contentless, so conformist, so utilitarian, so sentimental, so individualistic, and so self-righteous.”[3]

Author Prothero finds that we have failed to take religion seriously, and that failure he feels to be of the gravest seriousness. Although he is an educator he tells us that he writes as a citizen (an irate one)[4] and as he puts it, he fears that “faith without knowledge is dead.”[5] The argument of this book is that one needs religious literacy to be an effective citizen. He despairs when confronted time and again with what is said to be the most widely quoted verse in the Bible — God helps those who help themselves — which, of course, isn’t in the Bible! He makes a strong case when he argues that our inability to think clearly and speak confidently about not only Christianity but other religions should concern anyone who cares about public life. He gives us this comparison: when female suffrage was debated, most citizens were very aware of the 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians passages. When gay marriage or abortion are debated, Prothero argues that it would only be a rare American who could debate or even follow a debate which was biblically based.

Prothero also rails against our ignorance of Islam: “Few Americans are able to challenge claims made by politicians or pundits about Islam’s place in the war on terrorism or what the Bible says about homosexuality. This ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth estate (the press).”[6]

Are we aware, for example, of  the fact that political expediency is what led a ruthless ruler to shut down debate within the Christian church in the 4th century[7] and that we have inherited currently held beliefs that were imposed rather than agreed on?

One of Prothero’s skills is to stress how very different the U.S. is from Europe and the sort of hard-nosed secularism that is common there. He points out that even when  American survey respondents entered “no religion” these same respondents stated that they prayed, i.e. they were unchurched but had not given up on God. “The Gospel of John instructs Christians to ‘search the scriptures’ (John 5:39), but little searching, and even less finding, is being done.”[8] He backs up this claim with the results of many studies and has found that students learn almost nothing about the Bible in their high school years. Therefore all biblical knowledge would have had to come from Sunday School in the younger years. If they did not attend (and often if they did) no real understanding exists. There is no platform, no body of intelligence; teaching has not only disappeared from the schools but from homes and churches as well, since we seem to have taken another approach.

A Catholic theologian, also disturbed by these trends, sees Catholic ignorance as akin to “retinal detachment in which a whole field of vision is pulling inexorably away toward blindness.”[9] Also Mark Noll, who wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, certainly made his point: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Prof. Prothero gives these reasons: “Pop psychology has elbowed biblical exegesis out of many born-again pulpits (including some of the most successful megachurches), self-help books outsell theological works in most Christian bookstores, and loving Jesus has replaced affirming the Westminster Confession as the soul of evangelical piety. Despite their conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, evangelicals show scant interest in learning what scripture has to say or wrestling with what it might mean.”[10] He then adds that even in the Bible Belt, the Scriptures are becoming “the greatest story never read.” Apparently research has shown that agnostics, non-believers and Muslims know more about religion and spirituality than Christians living in the U.S.[11] Author Allan Bloom seems to concur.[12]

As a citizen Prothero cites this example of the danger of biblical illiteracy: in a courtroom where the Old Testament passages of Lev. 24:20, 21; Ex. 21:23-25 and Deut. 19:21 were used to promote “eye for an eye” justice, the jurors were found to be impoverished in their exegetical skills as they were not able to supply Jesus’ interpretation of this philosophy. “The moral is rather that if jurors are going to consult scripture — and, court rulings aside, they doubtless are — then those jurors should at least have the decency (and the piety) to try to get the Bible right.”[13]

One chapter subheading is “Textbook Ignorance (American Style)” and our author has this to say: “When religion is mentioned in US history schoolbooks, it is all too often an afterthought or an embarrassment (or both) …But after President Abraham Lincoln is buried, religion typically goes underground too, leaving students with the distinct impression that, insofar as religion has had any historical effects, those effects are now safely behind us.” The difference was that religion mattered then, and here again we see that enormous difference between[14] Americans and Europeans (the French variety) as our revolution was motivated at least partially by religious dissent whereas France’s revolt was secular.

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[1] Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy, p. 6, emphasis added.
[2]Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Christian Mind,
[3]Religious Literacy, p. 7
[4]Ibid., p. 9
[5]Ibid., p.9
[6]Ibid., p.10
[7] Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Christian Mind,
[8]Religious Literacy, p. 30
[9] Ibid., p. 35, emphasis added.
[10] Ibid., pp. 35, 36.
[11]Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Dallas Darling
[12]The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom
[13]Ibid., p. 38
[14] Ibid., p. 44



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