'X' wrote:U.S. News & World Report
By Jay Tolson
With roughly 9 in 10 of its citizens claiming to believe in God or a
Supreme Being, America is widely acknowledged to be the most religious of
modern industrial nations. Yet when it comes to knowledge about religion,
it ranks among the most ill-informed. While close to two thirds of all
Americans regard the Bible as a source of answers to life's questions,
only half can name even one of the New Testament Gospels. Similarly, in a
land of growing religious diversity, only 10 percent of U.S. teenagers
can name the world's five major religions. Stephen Prothero, the head of
the department of religion at Boston University, calls this condition a
"major civic problem." His new book, Religious Literacy, tells how we got
here—and how we might do better.
Were we once a religiously literate nation?
Very much so. Religious literacy and basic literacy used to go hand in
hand. The Bible was the first reader of the colonists and early
Americans, so as they learned to read, they read the Bible. One important
sign of this literacy was that Americans conducted many of their most
important civic debates, including the debate over slavery, largely in
You name six links in the chain of religious education that once made
Americans knowledgeable about religion. What were these, and how were one
or two of them weakened, if not demolished?
The big links were churches, schools, households, Sunday schools,
colleges, and Bible and tract societies. In schools, the chain of memory
got broken not in the '60s by secularists, as many conservative
Christians claim, or by Supreme Court rulings that outlawed devotional
Bible reading and prayers in public schools. Bible courses and the
teaching of religion started to go away in the mid-19th century as a
result of the debate over which Bible to read—and that was instigated by
religious people, not secularists.
Another change was in the churches themselves, when they started focusing
on loving Jesus rather than on listening to him. The Bible slowly became
a kind of ornament and a source of authority rather than a book you
actually read. Sermons became more about ordinary life and less about
biblical narratives, while Sunday schools focused more on morality than
on learning about your own particular denomination.
You say that the "United States became a nation of forgetters at the same
time it became a nation of evangelicals. "
Evangelicalism became the dominant religious impulse in the early 19th
century, replacing Puritanism. Puritans understood God through a
combination of the head and the heart. They were keen on religious
learning and reason. [But] evangelicals were suspicious of the mind.
Focusing on experience and emotion, they slowly turned Americans away
from religious learning.
How did many Americans go from describing their civic religion as
Christian to calling it Judeo-Christian?
The shift came in response, first, to the Nazis' uses of Christianity to
advance their anti-Semitic program and, second, to the postwar threat of
communism. In order to distance themselves from the anti-Semitic fascists
and to fight "godless" communism, American Christians made common cause
Will the phrase Judeo-Christian- Islamic ever be as widely embraced?
I don't think so, largely because it's too long. The term Abrahamic
America is becoming pretty widespread. But right now, we're in the midst
of a debate over whether Islam can stand alongside Judaism and
Christianity as one of the three great American faiths. ... We're having
trouble with that conversation because we don't know anything about
What accounts for the neglect of religion in history textbooks?
Fear of controversy is one big factor. Publishers are determined to make
textbooks as unobjectionable as possible so they can be sold in every
school district in the country.
What other nations do a good job teaching religion in an objective way?
European countries do a much better job. ... And not just about the state
religion. You don't only learn about Lutheranism in Sweden or Anglicanism
Is it possible that religious illiteracy makes for relative religious
You could say that if Americans knew nothing about politics, then they
wouldn't get angry about politics. If they never went to movies, they'd
never argue about movies. So while this is also true about religion, the
cost of not knowing about religion is too high in a world in which
religion is so volatile and so influential.
How should America address religious illiteracy?
I think we need to have courses about the Bible and world religions in
middle schools and high schools, and I think they should be
mandatory—with an opt-out provision. One course would cover the five or
seven great religions. The other would be about the Bible. Students would
learn the basic stories and characters, but they would also learn about
the uses of the Bible in world and American history, in literature, and
in politics. By the way, I think few students would opt out of these
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