Thursday, April 26, 2007

Religious Literacy - A Review

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, Stephen Prothero takes his cue and his title from E. D. Hirsch’s 1988 volume, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—and Doesn’t, now in its third edition (2002). Prayer and devotion went out of the schools in 1963 with the court case of Abington Township School District v. Schempp, and with it went religion altogether. Prothero insists a correction is overdue. Not in prayer and devotion, however, but the objective study of religion as a school subject.

Hirsch complained that our national dumbing down had begun to eat away at our cultural heritage and he set about collecting facts he believed people need to participate intelligently in modern-day American culture. Prothero, after laying out what he calls the problem of religious illiteracy and showing us what Americans once knew about religion, also provides a dictionary of terms he hopes will address that lacuna.

Like Hirsch, as well as proponents of “Western Civilization” courses in the university, Prothero has to contend with the big question of who gets to speak for the national culture. Before Hirsch and Prothero, there was Howard Bloom’s plea that we stop being seduced by popular culture, postmodern relativity notions and low quality writing and renew our acquaintance with the products of the best and the brightest of our civilization. The problem is just what those products might be. Bloom was attacked on all sides for his biases in favor of “dead white men,” and Hirsch hardly fared better. Prothero, too, will have to answer to people who ask why it is when he says religion he almost always means Christianity – and Protestant Christianity at that. He is scornful of the idea that we offer equal treatment to all religions. His dictionary includes other religions, but his discussion of school curriculum lays overwhelming emphasis on knowledge of the Bible. The reason being, of course, that Protestant Christianity is our cultural heritage, warts and all.

There are several problems with that claim. One is its incompleteness. Protestantism is unquestionably a major part of what has made and continues to make America tick. But it’s not all, and there’s the argument that with only so many hours in the day, and in a school year, more hours of Latin and Greek mean fewer hours of Latin American literature, to pick topics chosen arbitrarily and at random.

Not entirely arbitrarily, of course. The example parallels the struggle between conservative forces who look back at what we were and want to hold fast, and progressive forces who suggest we fix what went wrong and move on. To bring religious studies back into schools, as Prothero wants us to do, would mean cutting time for something else. Where would religious studies stand in competition with music, drama, or sports? Or more math and science, for that matter. Times have changed. Would courses in ecology not draw greater parental support than a course in which one reviewed the books of the Bible (and distinguished between Jewish, Catholic and Protestant bibles)?

Anthropologists describe, and leave advocacy to others. A Martian anthropologist would look at America and simply observe that Americans no longer learn to make quilts and spinning wheels, no longer burn witches and lynch the descendants of slaves, and no longer care as they once did whether one should be baptized as an adult or as a child.

Prothero, on the other hand, spends a chapter reminding us how much “we” used to know, how much a part of a child’s education was comprised of Bible stories. He then speaks of the “predicament” we are in because that knowledge base has been largely eroded. He gives little weight to the fact that a far greater number of us today are Hindu or Jew, Muslim, secularist, atheist, Buddhist, or Catholic than in days gone by.

“Faith without knowledge is dangerous, ” he says (p. 146). Religion is "the most volatile constituent of culture" and "one of the greatest forces for evil" in the world.” Elsewhere he argues that he is neutral about religion – “I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen” (p. 15). He is a believer, however, and may be located among the knowledge-based Christians (those who seek to understand the message of Jesus) and not among the increasingly numerous and powerful spirit-based Christians (who speak of Jesus as a friend they talk to on a daily basis). This raises the question of where his supporters and detractors are most likely to come from. Will Jews want to sit through classes on the bible where the large majority are born-again Christians? Will the born-again Christians want to hear the view that anti-semitism is found not only in the hearts of some Christians but in the scriptures themselves?

In a perfect world, one would welcome this kind of exchange. But one can only imagine the can of worms we’d open if we put it in the high schools in today’s America. He insists it’s already being done successfully in 8% of America’s schools, but that claim requires closer scrutiny. Prothero’s proposal would require very serious groundwork indeed and would doubtless only work as an elective.. Will non-religious people be convinced of its value? Will spirit-based religionists agree that knowledge about religion (which will inevitably hold their beliefs up to scrutiny) lead to something good? Should we even care what they think? Should we not go with Prothero especially if we think the renewalist wave is not simply a fact but an alarming one?

Prothero gives mixed messages. His chapter on the history of Protestant America suggests a nostalgia for a time when religion took up more space in American life. And this doesn’t jibe with his ignorance-is-dangerous pitch. He suggests that there is something shameful about thinking Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, as if it is on a par with those polls which show an alarming number of Americans cannot distinguish Iraq from Australia on a map. And he is especially critical of people who do not know “their own religious history.” But isn’t that begging the question? If they do not know it, perhaps it is not “their own” anymore, and if he is writing as a citizen and not as a Christian, why should he care?

Whether or not he has a religious agenda hiding in his appeal, however, (and I see absolutely nothing sinister in that – he has every right to advocate religion) I think we should take him at face value when he gives us two non-religious reasons for boning up on things Americans once knew about religion, one political and one sociocultural.

Politically, the case can be made that our ignorance of the differences between Shia and Sunni led to catastrophe in Iraq. Another case can be made that knowing nothing about the role of dispensational premillenialism blinds us to the reasons evangelicals support an aggressive Israeli policy in Gaza and the West Bank. A third, one that brings me around to his side even more than the others, is that we fail miserably to ask interesting questions of Christians who focus more energy on wiping out homosexuality than poverty and follow a war policy but not a turn-the-other-cheek policy.

On the cultural front, a case can be made that a failure to understand the Biblical references and religious argument for civil disobedience in Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail or the moral one in his I Have a Dream speech means we miss a full appreciation of some of the great documents in the history of American democracy. Other examples abound.

Beyond that, what we teach our children, it seems to me, is up for grabs. I agree with Bloom that if you don’t spend some time with Shakespeare, you’re squandering a great resource of the English language. I resonate with much of what Hirsch includes in his canon. And I share with Prothero the wish more people could talk intelligently about Vatican I and II, the separation of church and state, exactly why some people refuse blood transfusions and the like. But I have more than a little trouble shedding a tear that America is no longer what it was when its children were reading the McGuffey readers. Are we really worse off now that Catholics no longer refuse to pray with Protestants, and build parochial schools because the public schools are so antagonistic to Catholicism? Do we really want to go back to the assumption of America as a Christian nation, as we did when Jews could not join country clubs? If the ‘relativization’ of religious beliefs leads Jews to marry out at a rate of 50%, is it really my responsibility as an American citizen to turn the tide?

Prothero’s appeal that we be well-read in our cultural history should be welcome by any and all of us. His argument that there are risks in not knowing about something that figures so prominently in our domestic and international relations also has merit. But he provides no reason why his suggestion that we retire to our sectarian camps to renew our various ultimate truth claims should be taken seriously. Those who find religion a glass half full will agree with him; those who see religion as a source of division will not.

Prothero has delivered on his title to a degree. The book is full of interesting facts. I was raised a Christian but learned of Arminius here for the first time. (Jacobus Arminius, who inspired Methodists and later Pentecostalists and others) focused on the importance of a personal (read: emotional) relationship with Jesus. I had forgotten that the Douay version of the bible has more books than the King James; I thought it was a question of different books. I thoroughly enjoyed the history of the sea change from knowing about Jesus to knowing him personally. By and large, though – and Prothero admits this – he only scratches the surface of facts about religion and seriously short-changes some. (There is no mention of Sufi, of Christian Science, of voodoo.) But except for the promise in his title, that’s not a fair criticism. His book is an appeal more than a repository of information.

As many have pointed out recently, religion is on the rise in America, and the European pattern of ever increasing secularism may be the exception, not the rule. The reason we know less than we once did as a nation Prothero attributes not to creeping secularism but to the shift over time from a knowledge-based Calvinism to a passion-based Arminianism.

The pendulum swings back and forth throughout history between times when we make reason central and times when passion reigns supreme. The current zeitgeist is to talk of scripture passionately, but not really know what it says. Many Afro-Americans who do read carefully refuse to read Paul’s letters in church where he urges slaves to submit to their masters. Most renewal (Arminian, Pentecostal, spirit-based, passion-based – we’re still working out the labels) Christians don’t give it a moment’s thought, or consider it trivial. Knowledge of scripture in their camp is so scanty that they associate sin with sexual behavior and not with their failure to feed the homeless. They can tell you why they oppose homosexuality, but not why they prioritize it and other sexual sins over peace and compassion. Rather than debate the scriptures, they often argue along the lines that a little knowledge is dangerous. No-nothingism lives on, and Prothero’s plan would be a challenge to the those who focus on faith healing, speaking-in-tongues and other joyous expression at the cost of critical thinking.

What exactly would we include in a school curriculum on religion? Who would teach it? Would we have a Vatican I catholic debate a Vatican II catholic? Or would we take the power structure view that there is no division and propagate a falsehood? Would we permit kids to laugh out loud at stories of the Rapture? Or would we insist that respect for religion is necessary? What message are we giving our children, Prothero asks, by keeping silent about religion in the public arena? What message, I ask, would we be giving them if we told them there are ideas which one must not express. Would we keep silent about artistic productions such as the Piss Christ and the Chocolate Jesus? Would we depend on the state to determine what might be said in these religion courses?

It would not take long, I suspect, after opening the pandora’s box that holds religious fervor in check before we would be scurrying back to where we are now, where parents who believe it important to inculcate religious beliefs into their children use the opportunities provided by Sunday Schools, catechism classes, summer camps, the dinner table and prayers and discussions before bedtime. And where the rest of us go back to the gentlemen’s agreement we once had based on a conviction that nice people don’t say nasty things about other people’s religion.

If religion comes out in public, it has to be treated like any other idea. Aired and debated and subjected on occasion to ridicule. Is that what Prothero is after? If so, I doubt most religious people in America will be so quick to support his efforts. If we are going to go on being “decently respectful” about one another’s religious convictions, it is best kept in the private arena where one enters at one’s own risk.

I don’t see how you can have it both ways.

But in the end, my view is one of scepticism about how we might successfully implement his plan, rather than opposition. My guess is that Prothero’s idea will catch hold to some degree in some places. And where it doesn’t, it will generate useful discussion.

That’s all to the good.

April 26, 2007


There are at least two excellent treatments of Prothero’s proposal. One is an
interview on Tavis Smiley which gets at the main points:

Another is David Van Biema’s article in Time Magazine which outlines many of the objections before seconding the motion:,9171,1601845,00.html

There’s also the Jon Stewart interview:

Additional reviews are available on Prothero’s website:

1 comment:

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