Book Review: Religious literacy : what every American needs to know–and doesn’t

I have just about finished the audiobook version of
Religious literacy : what every American needs to know–and doesn’t and I am impressed. I’m especially impressed because the book is read by the author, Stephen R Prothero.

As a rule of thumb, I don’t enjoy books read by the author. Some people write well, others speak well and only a few do both well. If you ever see an audiobook of Tapping State Government Information where *I* read the northwest state chapters, run! But Stephen Prothero is fun to listen to. It’s like being at a really interesting dinner party.

The book itself is divided into four main parts. The first part examines the current state of religious knowledge in the United States. This knowledge is low even for the Christianity that claims a large share of our country and almost all politicians. Step outside of Christianity and religious knowledge is almost non-existent. The second part examines how we got to this state and draws some surprising but seemingly well supported conclusions. The third part proposes the restoration of religious studies into secondary schools and colleges. He specifically recommends a semester long course on the Bible and a semester course on what he calls the seven major world religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism. The last part of the book is a dictionary of religious literacy. Here is where you’ll learn the first five books of the Bible, the five pillars of Islam, the four noble truths of Buddhism, and so on.

In advocating teaching religions in our high schools, Professor  Prothero is clear that he is talking about teaching about religion and not about proselytizing either for a specific religion or for religious relativism. He also walks the reader through a number of Supreme Court decisions that make it clear that schools are empowered to teach knowledge about religion. It sounded persuasive to me, but I’m not a lawyer.

Why teach religion in our public schools? Prothero argues that religious literacy is a civic necessity in a nation whose political discourse is dripping with religious references from politicians of both parties. Prothero argues that religion infused debate can only be evaluated properly by people who have some basic facts about world religions and about the majority religion in one’s country. Additionally, knowledge of world religions is increasingly required because of our extensive involvement in the Middle East and other areas with unfamiliar, but powerful religious traditions.

One thing about the book that really spoke to me is that it gave a rational cause for the type of civil religion that I am unhappy with today – the religion that denounces its enemies with venomous hatred, that demands the 10 commandments be placed in every building and a nativity set on every corner in December, yet which has seem to have lost the words of the Christ it claims to defend. According to Prothero, you basically had a century’s worth of well meaning religious people who wanted to have K-12 education teach religion, but kept stripping out doctrinal points that caused disagreements first among Protestants, then with Catholics, and finally, Jews. What you had left (I’m paraphrasing here) was essentially, “Be good, God is watching and He is on Our Side.”

I think he makes his points well. Read the book or listen to the audiobook and make up your own mind.

Finally, I think that while Prothero does a great job of reading, the presence of the dictionary of religious literacy and the likely extensive footnotes make the print version a better purchase for those who want to explore further. But the audio version is great for people who want to understand why people are so determined to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings but can’t name most of them or realize there are at least three versions.

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