Joan of Arc is not Noah’s wife, and Sodom and Gomorrah are not husband and wife. Those are just two basic facts that Stephen Prothero wishes everyone knew. In the 2007 book Religious Literacy, Prothero, a religious studies professor at Boston University, takes on America’s widespread ignorance about religion. This ignorance exists among believers and nonbelievers alike, and its consequences can be devastating. Prothero references the shooting death of the Sikh man Balbir Singh Sodhi by a man who thought he was a Muslim as one particularly tragic consequence. (The tragedy, of course, lies not only in the confusion between Sikh and Muslim but also in the shooter’s belief that all Muslims would advocate violence.) Ignorance does not always have such terrifying outcomes, but even in more innocuous forms, it can lead to misunderstandings and denials of rights and freedoms guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. For Prothero, good citizenship requires a basic knowledge of religion.
Let me begin by saying that Prothero did not have to sell me on this premise at all. One of the reasons I decided to go to seminary years ago was because of my frustration at the level of ignorance about Christianity within the Christian church. Bring other religions into the conversation, and it seems that ignorance knows no bounds! As I listened to the first disc of this audiobook, I was nodding my head in agreement almost constantly. I did eventually start to wonder, however, if this book would just be a long diatribe without much substance. That turned out not to be the case. After his lengthy discussion of the problem (preaching to the choir in my case), Prothero settles into a narrative explaining how the U.S. reached its current state of ignorance and then suggests solutions for the problem.
The historical narrative was engaging and easy to follow. Prothero traces how schools shifted away from teaching religious content and what role both the culture and the churches played in this shift. At some points in the history, the churches were actively involved in taking religion out of schools, in part because they did not want students to be learning the “wrong” religious ideas. He also discusses how the rise in religious pluralism has changed the conversation about religion over the years. Most of the individual bits of information were not new to me, but I’d never put all the pieces together in my mind. Prothero assembles the facts clearly and intelligently and in a generally even-handed manner. Many different groups contributed to the problem, and all get their share of blame here.
Prothero’s solution to ignorance is, obviously, education. He explains that the Supreme Court has clearly ruled that education about religion is permissible in schools, but schools have avoided providing such education out of fear of violating the separation of church and state. However, leaving religion out of education gives students a skewed view of history, literature, and culture. It leads them to believe that religion is not important and keeps them from seeing the role religion has played in the world (both positive and negative). People have done great and terrible things under because of their religious beliefs. To ignore that would be wrong.
Prothero suggests that teachers and curriculum designers end their silence about religion within their subjects. He also advocates requiring a basic religious studies course in secondary schools. Such a course would not—indeed must not—teach that certain religions are true or untrue. Rather, such a course would teach students the basics of what different religions believe so that they would be able to participate intelligently in civic discussions that touch on religious topics. I’m not sure such a course would be feasible at a time when schools are being driven to eliminate all sorts of courses that are not part of the standardized testing requirements; however, I fully support the idea that teachers should bring up the roles of faith leaders when it is relevant to their subjects. And certainly religious studies seems like a potentially good elective option. Whatever form it takes, such teaching in public schools should be balanced, showing both positives and negatives and mentioning different faiths as they are relevant. But to ignore the role of religion in history and culture is to provide an incomplete education.
Perhaps the most beneficial part of the book for many readers will be the lengthy dictionary of religious terms that closes the book. Here, Prothero gives succinct and clear explanations of a variety of terms related to many different religions that have a significant role in American life today. I was especially impressed with his explanation of evangelicalism. As a former progressive evangelical, one of my pet peeves is hearing the term evangelical equated with political conservatism. That is, quite simply, incorrect and incomplete. True, many evangelicals are politically conservative, but not all are. (Jim Wallis of Sojourners is a notable liberal evangelical.) And even many politically conservative evangelicals do not hew to the party line in all areas. Historically, evangelicals have been connected with a variety of progressive movements; it is only in recent years that so many of their interests have shifted to the political right.
There were perhaps a few points when I might have quibbled with his definitions, but most of my quibbles had to do with the fact that he simplified the facts—and in all fairness, most laypeople would not need to understand all the nuances of some of these doctrines in order to carry on an intelligent conversation about them. I found the definitions related to non-Christian faiths to be informative and easy to understand (and I recognize that many were no doubt simplified just as the Christian terms were). Some might argue about which terms were included and which weren’t. I’m sure if I had the book in front of me, I’d have complaints and questions about that! But if the list is treated as a place to start and not a complete exploration of the many faiths referenced, I think it works well.
All in all, this is a solid book that makes a strong contribution to the conversation about religious education in America.