Religious Literacy in the 21st Century

I highly recommend the new book Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). Subtitled “What Every American Needs to Know– and Doesn’t,” the book makes the argument that the powerful role that religion plays in today’s world, for both good and ill, demands a higher level of understanding. Tracing how religion once ruled and gradually declined in public education in the U.S. (surprise! it wasn’t “secular humanists” who took religious education out of the schools; it was staunch believers unhappy about how religion was being taught), Prothero makes the case for teaching about religion, rather than avoiding it.

When religion in mentioned in US history schoolbooks, it is all too often an afterthought or an embarassment (or both) and clearly a diversion from what is presumed throughout to be a secular story. Historian Jon Butler has called this the jack-in-the-box approach: Religious characters pop up here and there, typically with all the color and substance of a circus clown, but their appearances– prosecuting witches in Salem in the 1690’s or making monkeys of themselves at the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in the 1920’s– are always a surprise (or a scare), and, happily, they go back into hiding as soon as they emerge. (p. 44)

Knowledge of the Bible and Christianity, Prothero adds, are scarcely sufficient “in a country with over 1,200 mosques and more Hindu temples than any country outside of India” (p. 135). Religious literacy in the 21st century requires the realization that “you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand and that understanding a foreign religious tradition means wrestling with ways in which that religion is fundamentally different from your own” (p. 121).

More than half the book is devoted to “A Dictionary of Religious Literacy,” a selection of key terms and concepts from the world’s religious traditions that Prothero considers either central to understanding those traditions, or which have prominence in popular culture in the US, or both. Consider the first section, “Religion by the Numbers.” How many of these can you identify?

  • 4 Gospels (Christian)
  • 4 Noble Truths (Buddhist)
  • 5 K’s (Sikh)
  • 5 Pillars of Islam
  • 7 Sacraments (Christian)
  • 7 Deadly Sins (Christian)
  • 8-Fold Noble Path (Buddhist)
  • 10 Commandments (and their differing numbers in Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant traditions)
  • 12 Apostles (Christian)

Prothero, professor of religious studies at Boston University, writes with a clear and understandable style (I also recommend his earlier book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became A National Icon). Religious Literacy offers a challenge to us all to consider how much we know about religion in America, and how we need to go about educating ourselves and others to live in a multi-religious world.

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