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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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a retired public high school history teacher I know how right most of the information is in this posting.
    The history texts offered for use in the public schools by publishers are usually fanatically , supremely, and ignorantly politically correct.
    Some recent texts completely omit any of the religious origins of our country including any religion connection with the Pilgrims and the Puritans.
    One textbook we were offered for use had one full page on Sally Ride the first woman into space.
    BUT absolutely nothing on Neil Armstrong and his landing on the moon. Apparently the textbook censors didn’t like his comment upon landing that dared to use the word “man” instead of human being.
    Things aren’t likely to get better because teacher’s unions have become hotbeds of everything radically liberal.
    My granddaughter came home from public school asking why her father was so evil. He is the comptroller for a giant paper plant in Texas. They cut down trees (but plant seedlings after harvest so it is like corn on a longer time cycle)
    It seems the teacher, using moronically liberal lesson plans from the union, gave what amounts to a radical, left-wing screed attacking just about every industry that provides jobs and raw materials in America.
    The real kicker is that this school is in a town that would cease to exist if it weren’t for the paper-timber industry.
    In history there is an insulting name for such narrow-mindedness: “Luddism” (the name of the movement to smash all machinery in the very early industrial years because it supposedly caused unemployment.)

  • veronica

    My favorite bit of media ignorance was a couple years ago when Matt Lauer announced, “Easter falls on a Sunday this year!”

  • Scott Allen

    I, for one, would never want a non-christian teaching a class on christianity. If Americans want to know more about their (supposed) faith, they can visit the clergy and there are plenty of online resources.
    As things stand, Americans know much about their true object of worship: themselves.

  • Jill C.

    Raised an Episcopalian and now considers himself a “confused Christian?” Why am I not surprised?

  • Stephen A.

    I surely agree that we need to all be better educated about religion, but I suspected this guy was a “confused Christian” when I read the first quotes by him here on the blog. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, or maybe I’ve got great antennae, but I noticed a lot of “trigger” words here.

    Like the quote about someone who “claims to quote the Bible or the Quran” about “gay rights.” I’m sure the “preachers with a political agenda” refers to both Left and Right. Um, right? No, likely not.

    I agree with the Deacon and Scott, above. History has long been a failing of the schools, and it’s not getting better. Also, kids as well as adults are great at worshipping themselves. I see ZERO reportong on that phenomenon, perhaps because the reporters are trying to become “famous” by embracing advocacy journalism.

  • Dennis Colby

    Instead of blaming high schools and the media, though, how about pointing the finger where it really belongs – at religious groups? I don’t know if Prothero goes into this at all, but religious groups – particularly the larger, more mainstream groups – are appallingly bad at educating their own members about the basics of their faith. I think this is because most religious groups in this country get sidetracked by America’s real religion – politics – and lose focus on what should be transcendent truths.

    I don’t know if this kind of material is covered in Prothero’s book, but I’d love to see surveys of major denominations asking questions about the various churches’ positions on social and political issues versus their positions on theology. I’m willing to bet that, say, close to 100 percent of Catholics could identify the Church’s teaching on abortion, but I’d be stunned if half that number could correctly identify what the Church teaches about precisely how Christ’s death redeems sinners.

    This is a rich area for good reporting: I’d love to see some deep digging about what it is people actually believe, what their institutions teach, and where there’s disconnect between the two. My hunch is that there are a lot of unconscious Arians and Modalists in America’s pews.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Part of the problem is that “mainline” Americans consider themselves automatically experts on Christian theology and ecclesiology by virtue of having been born in this country, or perhaps by virtue of having been baptized in infancy. They don’t need no stinking religious education, they already know it all.

  • Ed

    Immaculate Conception =/= Virgin Birth

    Pet Peeve Numero Uno.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “One textbook we were offered for use had one full page on Sally Ride the first woman into space.”

    Just to echo Deacon John, not to correct him…
    The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova (sp?).

    She flew the last of the Vostok missions back in the early 60s…. yes she was a RUSSIAN.
    Run her through Wikipedia if you need detalis, all I can recall off the top of my head was that Her callsign was “Seagull”.

    Which tells you even more out how accurate the new textbooks are.

  • Eric

    I think there’s lot of truth in what Dennis Colby said. How can you expect journalists to understand the belief system when the people in the pews don’t?

  • http://stephenprothero.com Stephen Prothero

    Thanks for noticing my “Religious Literacy” book. In it I talk about how the media seems to be more interested in entertaining us than educating us. Entertainment, I say, has become the new God. That said, there ARE some good religion reporters out there, Cathy Grossman at USA Today and Jay Tolson at US News and World Report included. After he did his piece on the book in US News, Tolson and I spoke at length about religion and cognitive science. He is really up on it. And Lisa Miller at Newsweek knows her stuff too. That said, the general state of the art really isn’t what it should be in the media. Wouldn’t it be fun to get some journalists to take my quiz? How would they do?

  • Jonathan

    Stephen,
    Do you have a link to your quiz? I took the quiz in Newsweek, but I don’t think it was the full 15 question quiz. (I aced the quiz.) ;-)


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