What America doesn't know about religion

religious educationWe've ranted and raved about the lack of knowledge important Americans like senators and Congressmen have about Islam, but now it's time to have a fit about how little most Americans know about the religion that is all around them. For starters, turn to a nice long report by Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today on the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't by Boston University religion department chairman Stephen Prothero. He argues that religion is becoming more and more important these days (amen!) and Americans are less and less likely to be informed about it:

"More and more of our national and international questions are religiously inflected," he says, citing President Bush's speeches laden with biblical references and the furor when the first Muslim member of Congress chose to be sworn in with his right hand on Thomas Jefferson's Quran.

"If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they're both Muslim, and you've been told Islam is about peace, you won't understand what's happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it's so?

"If you want to be involved, you need to know what they're saying. We're doomed if we don't understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can't outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda."

You don't have to believe to get religion, according to Prothero. He was raised Episcopalian and now is a "confused Christian."

Grossman does a great job with this news story. Interviewing and quoting Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis, the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, U.S. historian Joy Hakim and a half-dozen others, Grossman gives us a sad picture of religious understanding in America.

Education is a major theme in the piece:

Prothero's solution is to require middle-schoolers to take a course in world religions and high schoolers to take one on the Bible. Biblical knowledge also should be melded into history and literature courses where relevant. He wants all college undergrads to take at least one course in religious studies.

He calls for time-pressed adults to sample holy books and history texts. His book includes a 90-page dictionary of key words and concepts from Abraham to Zen. There's also a 15-question quiz -- which his students fail every year.

In a Q&A with U.S. News & World Report's Jay Tolson, Prothero also cites the lack of education as the major reason for this lack of religious knowledge:

What accounts for the shocking neglect of religion in most U.S. and world history textbooks?

Fear of controversy -- even allergy to 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. Another factor is that one of the pockets of secularity in the middle of this very religious country is [the] publishing [industry] and the media more broadly. A lot of the authors and publishers of these textbooks are secular, and they imagine that everybody else must be also. Finally, until recently, a lot of intellectuals thought religion was going away as societies became more modern, and that just hasn't happened. A lot of historians and sociologists have been scrambling in the last few years to make sense of a world in which religion matters. I think they're finally getting the message.

In your view, what other nations, if any, do a good job teaching religion in an objective, academic way?

European countries do a much better job. They are at least trying to educate young people about religion and, to their credit, not just about the state religion, either. You don't only learn about Lutheranism in Sweden or Anglicanism in Britain.

Now I am not going to quarrel with anyone who wants to increase the level of religious learning in schools, but I do wish someone had said something about the media's impact in all of this. I remember reading somewhere that newspapers are cutting back on their religion coverage. That was a good story, by the way.

When a week-long media blitz involves transparent crackpot theories about a box supposedly containing Jesus Christ's bones, and turns out to be little more than a publicity stunt, whose fault is that?

And what of the other recent media coverage of religion? If it doesn't have to do with right-wing Republican politics, it has to do with new theories (which are really quite old) and sensational coverage of new books (which are also really quite old).

I have yet to read Prothero's book, but I'd be curious to see what it has to say about the media's coverage of religion.

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