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Archive for September, 2011

I know I haven’t posted in awhile, my apologies.  The past few weeks have been rather crazy.  Here is the long-promised Part 3 of 4 on Religious Literacy.

Religious Literacy: what every American needs to know and doesn’t is written by Stephen Prothero. It both discusses the history of religious literacy and illiteracy, chronicles the increased lack of religious literacy in America, and proposes solutions to religious illiteracy.

His first chapter is entitled “A Nation of Religious Illiterates”, discussing the staggering lack of informed knowledge that many Americans have on religion.  He mentions the odd paradox that while religion has fallen from prominence in the debate in many European countries though religion continues to be taught in schools, here in America, religion has flourished in the public debates, despite the fact that there are staggeringly few instances of the Bible or religious classes being offered in school.  The religious literacy quiz that you see below?  The vast majority of Prothero’s college students failed the exam.  When I was reading this book a few years ago, I sometimes informally administered it to friends and family, my observation was that performance on the exam was directly correlated with age.  Older people were much more likely to be able to answer the Biblical questions, but younger people were much more likely to be able to answer about other faiths (though it has been pointed out, and is true, that the test is more geared to Judeo-Christianity, I probably should have come up with a new test, but I’ll admit that I’m not sure enough in some of my knowledge of other religions to really create one I felt was really accurate and represenative, though I continue to try to improve my knowledge of other religions).  What I found troubling was his quoting of the statistic that apparently “two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions”.  Since Biblical illiteracy is so ubiquitous, the idea that while the majority look to it as authoritative but know little about it, I find concerning and dangerous.

Prothero goes on in quotation of statistics from surveys on Biblical illiteracy.  Half of American adults can name one of the four gospels…most Americans cannot identity the first book of the Bible…many believe that Billy Graham gave the Sermon on the Mount (for the record, it was Jesus)…most believe Jesus was born in Jerusalem…oh, and ten percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife (I’m holding out hope that about half of those were just messing with the person taking the results).  In 2005, there was a bill in Alabama that proposed to protect public displays of the ten commandments.  A reporter interviewed all ten cosponsers of the bill and only one could name all ten.  A gallup poll found that 8 percent of teenagers thought that Moses was an apostle.

Propthero continues on to emphasize the importance of religion and to discuss both the religious literacy we once had (much do to the Protestant focus on reading the Bible at the start of our nation) and then how the literacy diminished.  Prothero also discusses an interesting phenomenon, that many of the organizations that were assumed would instill religious values and knowledge in their children, church, family, et cetera, now are not.  Prothero discusses that “some friends tell me that they don’t bring their sons and daughters to worship services or talk with them about their faith because they want their children to be free to choose a religion for themselves.  This is foolhardy, not unlike saying that you will not read anything to your daughter because you don’t want to enslave her to any one language.  The fact of the matter is that you cannot avoid teaching religion to your kids; if you offer them nothing, you are telling them that religion counts for nothing.”  I have to agree with much of this statement.  While I can accept that many parents do not want to repeat their parents’ mistakes by enforcing worship or dogma on their children, I think not bringing children into faith is equally a mistake.  I do not mean that every child should go to church or synagogue, etc.  Many parents do that, bring their children to church because they think they should and not out of any personal faith.  Except in rare cases or when there is a strong community in the church as a pull, most of those children will leave the church soon, and so will their parents.  Worship or religion is going to do little good if you don’t tell your kids that it matters.  I also think that the opposing idea, that we shouldn’t constrain our kids by teaching them a faith, is while well-intentioned, is rather naive.  There is a difference between explaining what you believe to your children, and telling them that they have no choice but to believe that too.  It is a crucial difference.

The rest of the book is Prothero’s argument on the necessity of religion in education.  He argues that every school should have a required Bible course and a required world religions course.  He discusses how many people are afraid to teach or mention religion in school because they feel it is unconstitutional.  It is not.  It is illegal to teach religion, it is not illegal to teach about religion.  We cannot advocate any particular creed or religion or idealogy, but that does not mean that we cannot teach information on it so that our students can be informed citizens.  Prothero maintains that his push for increased teaching of religion in schools is civic, not religious.  Prothero’s book is interesting and informative.  However, there’s a good likelihood that if you want to read the book in the first place, he’s preaching to the choir, but it still might be worth reading if you want to be more informed on issues of religious literacy.

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