Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Reading Recommendation for the Illiterate

Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy undertakes in a brief span to quantify, explain, and propose corrections for the rampant religious illiteracy of Americans. In simpler terms, Prothero attempts to unravel the paradox that, while Europeans tend to be religiously knowledgeable and irreligious, Americans are pious and religiously ignorant. Religious Literacy is too short a work, at just under 150 pages of actual exposition, to argue any of its points substantially, but this is just as well because Prothero is not covering any radically new ground. Instead, the work functions as an interesting resource both as an introduction for those who, as part of their general religious ignorance, are unaware that there is a problem and as a synthesis for those who are already plagued by worry about our collective idiocy. The book is carefully organized along three lines of thought:

What is the problem?

This is by far the most gripping section of Prothero's work, not because he uncovers a problem which we are all startled to find exists but because he quantifies it in ways that highlight its embarrassing severity. It is here that Prothero shocks the reader with a rapid succession of ever more embarrassing facts: one in five evangelicals believes in reincarnation, most American adults cannot name even one of the four Gospels, most American adults cannot name the first book of the Bible, a significant percentage of high school seniors believe Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, only one in three Americans can correctly identify Jesus as the person who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and one in ten Americans believes that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. These facts, gathered from scientific surveys, are interspersed with more anecdotal tributes to American religious ignorance: a woman who believes God created Eve out of an apple, another who thinks Matthew was swallowed by a whale, most Americans cannot name more than five of the Ten Commandments, and more. Worst of all, there are not statistically significant discrepancies between religious groups. Evangelical Protestants do marginally better in surveys than Catholics, for example, but they are nearer to one another than they are to getting right. In some cases, evangelicals do even worse, as with the 60% of evangelicals who believe that Jesus was born in Jerusalem compared to only 51% of Jews. The real force of all these statistics is to re-sensitize the reader to the claim that the religious ignorance in America is no trifling matter. It is easy to say that we should know more about the faith claimed by some 80% of Americans; it is something else to come face-to-face with the cold, hard statistical reality of our own shortcomings.

Why is there a problem?

Unless you suffer under the delusion, as is the case with much of the institutional religious right, that the ongoing march of aggressive secularity is the cause of religious illiteracy, Prothero's answer to the question of "why" will not be shocking. The rise of widespread religious ignorance, especially Christian ignorance, is tied by Prothero to the American process of religious democratization, à la Nathan Hatch. It was the anti-institutional, anti-clerical, anti-intellectual impulse of distinctively American revivalism--particularly in the Second Great Awakening, but also, according to Prothero, in the post-war revival of the fifties--that began the deemphasizing of religious knowledge. The unlikely and unwitting alliance of liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism resulted in a subordination of religious knowledge to religious feeling and of orthodoxy to orthopraxy. The onus of responsibility and thus of guilt falls not the deliberate atheist but on the amnesiac Christian who has forgotten his or her duty for pedagogy.

Notably, in a justifiable effort to stop Christians from shirking their guilt in the rise of a the religiously ignorant, I believe Prothero goes to far in exonerating secularity as such. I agree, certainly, that the religious right's attempt to blame active and self-aware secular pressure is misguided, perhaps even destructive as it encourages Christians to continue to ignore their need to be the front line in resurrecting religious knowledge. It is worth remembering, however, that democratization--with its anti-institutionalism and anti-clericalism--is itself a secular impulse of Western culture. It is a more pernicious form of secularity in so far as it has been quietly accepted as if a religious truth and erodes religious knowledge, among other things, from within. In Prothero's defense, however, his work is perhaps not the place to make such a subtle argument.

How do we fix the problem?

Here, Prothero's proposal is as bold as it is unlikely. He insists that, as a civic duty, every high school student should take a mandatory course in the Bible and world religions. He reasons, quoting Warren Nord: "How can anyone believe that a collegebound student should take twelve years of mathematics and no religion rather than eleven years of mathematics and one year of religion Why require the study of trigonometry or calculus, which the great majority of students will never use or need, and ignore religion, a matter of profound and universal significance?" While some might suggest that having a course dedicated to the Bible is somehow giving preferential treatment to one religion, Prothero insists that having such a specialized course is a logical, educational, and civic necessity. Without commenting on the validity of any religion or religion at all, he correctly notes that the Bible--not the Vedas or the Tao Te Ching or even the Quran--has been the most influential work in the history of Western culture. It is the Bible and the Christian religion which dominate the American political and social landscape like nothing else. Those ignorant of Christianity in America are intellectually anemic in ways they would not be if similarly ignorant of Sikhism. In Prothero's own words:

Some have argued against Bible courses in the public schools on the grounds that they somehow “establish” Judeo-Christianity. For these courses to be fair, this argument goes, teachers need to give equal time to all the world’s scriptures, treating the Bible as one sacred text among many. This is absurd and impractical. Of course, students can learn much from reading the Quran and the Tao Te Ching. But the Bible, which the Supreme Court has described as “the world’s all-time best seller,” is of sufficient importance in Western civilization to merit its own course. Treating it no differently from, say, the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastrians or Scientology’s Dianetics makes no educational sense. (And what teacher has the hours—or the training—to give “equal time” to all the world’s scriptures?)

The most intriguing part of his proposal is his examination of its legality. Showing a surprisingly broad knowledge of legal decisions regarding religious curricula, Prothero helps the reader to navigate constitutional issues surrounding his proposal (which, I should note, is by no mean peculiar to him but is being taken up in various forms on all sides of the political spectrum). His conclusion, which one struggles to disagree with, "Supreme Court justices are all but begging public schools to teach about religion."

In short, Religious Literacy is an intriguing little work which marches us through the morass of our own benightedness and, perhaps overly optimistically, proposes a way out for Americans. While I struggle to imagine a world in which Prothero's national proposals become a reality, his work has forced me to think about what might be done on a more local level, particularly by parents and churches. Many of the hallmarks of literacy according to Prothero I did not learn until I began formal education in religion. Looking back, I realize that they are facts that all Christians should know, not the least of which those of us who come from religious traditions which purport to give special place to the Scriptures.

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