Religious Literacy book cover

In Review

The Clueless Factor

By Sharon Goldman

When Stephen Prothero appeared on The Daily Show last spring, he and Jon Stewart chuckled over the fact that a Texas congressman who supports the display of the Ten Commandments in United States courthouses could name only three of the commandments and, when recently asked, guessed incorrectly that al-Qaeda is a Shi‘ite organization. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example of ignorance among our elected officials in regard to world religions, including Christianity. In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t, Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, explains why and how we have become a nation of illiterates when it comes to basic knowledge of the texts and tenets of religious doctrine and practice, including the Bible. Reminding us of the current political climate domestically as well as internationally, he effectively argues how this level of ignorance is not only irresponsible but also quite dangerous.

It is not difficult to find further illustration of the less-than-stellar understanding of religious-related matters among our national leadership, and Prothero does a great job with enumerating plenty of embarrassing examples. While Europeans are reasonably well informed about biblical content (many European countries require world religion courses in their secondary-school curricula) but on average do not claim religious piety, Americans are generally characterized by the opposite phenomenon. So many Americans, including too many who are elected to public office, espouse “Christian values” but are not even familiar with the content of the Bible, much less with the scriptures of other religions. This is one of the startling realities that fuels Prothero’s three-pronged argument.

The first prong is no doubt the most controversial: Given the fact that we live in a country with a Christian majority, a country in which most of our elected and appointed representatives claim allegiance to various Christian denominations, we need to become better informed about the content of Christianity (i.e., what the Bible actually says) in order to stay abreast of what Prothero calls “biblically inflected” discourse. Despite the First Amendment establishment clause, our leaders, judges, jurors, etc., do, for better or for worse, reference the Bible in their discussions and in their decision making. Prothero neither criticizes nor condones this reality; however, he does provide numerous examples of inaccurate or decontextualized citing of scripture within our courts, on campaign trails, and in inaugural addresses. Prothero argues that if scripture is to be employed for political purposes, our leaders should be able to do so more accurately, and citizens should be able to recognize and respond to arguments when they degenerate into specious sound bites.

The second prong of his argument is closely related to the first: Familiarity with the Bible is critical to our understanding of Western literature, art, and music, both in pop culture as well as the classics. His third reason is the most compelling: It is difficult to understand much international conflict today without having some basic knowledge of world religions, specifically Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Such knowledge is certainly also pertinent to our United States society, given its increasingly pluralistic demographics.

To his credit, Prothero’s project extends beyond critiquing our nation’s painful ignorance. He proposes a remedy that seems simple and sound. He recommends that our secondary public schools’ curricula mandate a world religion course, a value-neutral course designed neither to convert nor convince students of the supremacy of any single religious system, but rather to cover what Prothero calls “the facts.” In addition to a world religion course, which ostensibly could cover Christianity, Prothero advocates for an additional required course in Bible as literature.

To give the readers a concrete idea of what religious literacy looks like, the last third of his book is devoted to an alphabetized list of terms that he believes every educated American should be familiar with. This taxonomy includes names of texts, salient individuals and events, and religious holidays; it ranges in breadth from the Hadith to the Scopes Trial and Jerry Falwell. Wherever relevant, each term comes with a popular culture factoid. For example, under the listing of Moses the films The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt are mentioned, and the Kaballah does not escape reference to Madonna and Demi Moore, both denizens of the Kaballah Center in Los Angeles. Upon finishing the list, one can take a quiz that appears in the appendix (the answers are also provided). This is the same quiz that Prothero has given to his students at Boston University (most of whom were not able to pass it), and it includes such questions as naming the four Gospels, naming one Hindu text, and citing the religion clauses of the First Amendment.

Prothero argues so strongly for the primacy of biblical literacy in part, I believe, because he overestimates the leverage of Christianity and underestimates the resurgence of atheism in public discourse. He writes, “Today the hard-core atheist, once a stock figure in American life, has gone the way of the freak show.” Granted, Religious Literacy was conceived and written before—and hit the bookstores and news media roughly at the same time as—the most recent spate of atheist manifestos hit the bestseller list (e.g., Stephen Dawkins, Julia Sweeney, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens). Those “new atheism” ideas, however, have not exactly been in hiding. The trouble is that Prothero equates atheism with existentialism and psychoanalysis; now that those particular movements are ostensibly out of vogue, he concludes that so must be atheism. Prothero also criticizes Diana Eck for exaggerating the religious pluralism in the United States. He claims that the country is much more homogeneous (i.e., Chris-tian) than she assesses.

As thoroughly as Prothero researches the roots of our nation’s illiteracy, what he calls our amnesia, and as well intentioned as he is in his proposals to remedy our amnesia, he too is subject to his own culturally biased myopia. It is not simply the case that he argues for the primacy of Christian-centric education (i.e., a course in the Bible in addition to a world religion course). That is understandable given that, like it or not, Christianity is not leaving center stage of our political atmosphere any time soon. What is more disconcerting is the fact that he discusses every issue unabashedly through a Christian lens. The very titles of the critical chapters—“Eden,” “The Fall,” and “Redemption”—reveal his presuppositions undergirding analysis of the problem. While he waxes at length about the weak exigetical skills of our nation’s jurors, citizens, and politicians, his own reading of the Hebrew scriptures is through an un-acknowledged Christian hermeneutic; he refers to passages as if they are a preamble or rehearsal for the New Testament. Moreover, he fails to acknowledge that the very category of “religion” and all the isms generated by means of that category, is in itself a Western construct. Buddhism, for example, is a Western term for what is more accurately translated as Buddha Dharma or the way of the Buddha.

Not only does Prothero’s Christian-centric framework skew the perspective through which he diagnoses the problem, it also affects what is included and excluded in his treatment plan for the problem. Although the list at the end of the book includes Ramadan, Easter, and Christmas, the only Jewish holiday mentioned is Hanukkah. (The high holidays are mentioned parenthetically under the heading of Judaism under “J.”) And because there is no mention of the Talmud either in the taxonomy or in the main body of the text, a reader could easily conclude that Jewish discourse and tradition is based on the Hebrew scriptures alone. But most unfortunate is the prevalence of actual misinformation.

For example, Prothero claims that there is no prohibition against graven images in the Jewish version of the Ten Commandments. (Of the three versions he lists at the end of the book, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant, he cites the prohibition in the Protestant version only.) Anyone familiar with the artistic tradition and the dis-course it has generated within Judaism for centuries knows quite well how much ink has been spilled over the various interpretations of the Second Commandment. And one can only pause and question Prothero’s research methodology when he avers under “R” that the Reform Jewish movement recognizes patrilineal Jewish identification in addition to adhering to the traditional matrilineal identification. (The current Reform Jewish position considers a child with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother to be Jewish only if the child is raised Jewish. This is in contrast with the transdenominational position of acknowledging matrilineal identification regardless of upbringing.) Misinformation occurs in the main body of the text as well, such as when he refers to “Sabbath School” as if it were common practice for American Jews to send their children to religious school on Saturdays.

The biases and the misinformation not withstanding, Prothero does provide a very thorough historical account explaining the origins of our amnesia. Thankfully, he does not blame the secular forces of our history for undermining religious expression or for trampling Christian values, an argument we have seen and heard so stridently in recent decades from the religious right. Ironically, he credits the history of the evangelical movement itself for being a major source of the degradation of biblical knowledge. Evidently, during the colonial period and the early years of our nation, the “Eden” chapter of our religious history, people were quite conversant with scripture. Children learned to read with primers, such as the Mcguffey readers and Webster’s spellers, which adapted salient passages for younger audiences. The Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer set to rhyme were standard fare to memorize; everyone young and old was familiar with the Sermon on the Mount and with the Exodus story. This literacy movement continued into the early first half of the nineteenth century, though the means of transmission were largely replaced by the emergent Sunday school movement. Prothero argues that, having a shared lexicon, citizens were able to be articulate and engage with public debates on matters as important as slavery, the suffrage movement, poverty, and war.

This common framework that Prothero so lauds began to deteriorate with the Great Awakenings (mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, respectively), revival movements that valued experience and faith more than knowledge, specifically knowledge of biblical content. As these revival movements spread, and as more immigrants of diverse Protestant persuasions entered the landscape, pastors were under pressure to emphasize the common denominator of morality shared by all de-nominations, e.g., endorsing temperance and eschewing adultery. Scriptural learning deferred to forms of what Prothero terms “nondenominational vagueness,” eventually begetting such scions as the Moral Majority of the 1980s and the incoherent zeal of much of the contemporary religious right. Other episodes and individuals figure in Prothero’s account, some of them overtly detrimental, and others initially positive with unforeseen negative side effects. These include the shift in universities from prioritizing the education of ministers to embracing more sectarian foci, and the work of university deans, scholars, and ministers, who, in furthering their cause of tolerance and ecumenicalism, de-emphasized and even dismissed the specific features of discrete denominations. Ralph W. Emerson, John Dewey, Horace Mann, and Karen Armstrong are among the culprits. The upshot, Prothero laments, is that the particularities among various denominations with regard to interpretation and worship began to fade, as did their distinctive histories and agendas.


Religious Literacy:  What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn’t, by Stephen Prothero. HarperOne, 304 pages, $24.95

Here lies what I think is the pitfall of Prothero’s argument: the assumptions he makes about the efficacy and the origins of certain types of knowledge.

While Prothero concedes that even if it were possible, he would not want to revert to the days of those schoolroom readers and rote memorization, the fact that he refers to this period as “Eden” and to the period of the Great Awakenings as “The Fall” certainly suggests that there was something better about that era than what we have now, something that we have lost and can never fully recapture. It is interesting that Prothero completely omits some very significant events that occurred during these so called Eden days, not least of which was the Salem Witch trials. How much good did the rote memorization of catechism do if people left school and church to witness yet another hanging? Did this type of knowledge enlighten or empower people? Here lies what I think is the pitfall of Prothero’s argument: the assumptions he makes about the efficacy and the origins of certain types of knowledge.

First, there is the multitiered premise that knowledge automatically leads to thinking, that thinking leads to understanding (as if understanding can fall into place if fed enough rote facts), and that understanding is in and of itself sufficient for a healthy democratic society. While it is certainly the case that throughout American history many scripturally conversant people figured keenly in noble causes such as the abolition and suffrage movements, it is not definitively the case that scoring high on Prothero’s quiz would ensure intelligent and constructive discourse. And while familiarity with the Bible certainly could be helpful in becoming more vigilant on the misuse and misappropriation of its passages, perhaps our efforts might be better spent in mobilizing our fellow citizens to prevent the reelection and reappointment of characters who are relying upon and promulgating misinformation.

Second, there is Prothero’s premise that the appreciation of art and literature is contingent upon our biblical literacy, that, for example, one cannot appreciate Da Vinci’s Last Supper or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel without a familiarity with their respective biblical allusions. Really? Isn’t that the very definition of a “classic”—that it transcends its original impulse or context? Although our appreciation of the classics is certainly enhanced by our familiarity with the Bible, it is safe to say that our apprehension of classical art, music, and literature is not entirely contingent upon that familiarity. Even if we were to accept his premise of the primacy of biblical content, one could argue that such knowledge can be gleaned through art history and literature courses rather than from mandatory Bible courses.

As we well know, religion is just one of the many domains in which Americans are ill informed. Let’s face it, we are notorious for being ignorant of geography, world his-tory, civics, and foreign languages. Meanwhile, our children tend to score much lower on tests measuring math and science apprehension than our counterparts in the rest of the developed world. Is it really so startling that so many high school graduates cannot name the five books of the Old Testament if they can’t find France on the map? Nonetheless, the reality of our ignorance of world religions, including our own, has been ignored for too long. As our encounters with other cultures increasingly become a daily reality both on the political and on the personal spectrum, the gaps in our basic awareness become more obvious and more problematic. In a culture as schizophrenic as ours, a culture that on the one hand shies away from public discourse of any topic remotely religious, while at the same time elects officials who publicly indulge their religious rhetoric, Prothero is to be commended in his effort to address the issue head on. There are weak links in his argument, and certainly notable lacunae in his taxonomy, but the book does broach a discussion that needs to continue. Religious Literacy can serve as a useful reference in helping us sift through political rhetoric, media spin, and books written by department chairs at prestigious universities.

Sharon Goldman, who received a master of theological studies degree from HDS in 2005, is a public school teacher.

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