Sunday, February 14, 2010

Religious Illiteracy

According to the latest Pew Poll entitled U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 83% of Americans identify themselves as religious. This figure would make the United States the most religious nation in the developed world. Most religious people would be proud of this finding which proves how alive and vibrant religion is in this country. Religious conservatives never tire of reminding the rest of the nation that America is, and always has been, a “Christian nation.”

When we look more deeply into the details of this survey we find some interesting surprises. The number of people who claim "no organized religion" has doubled since 1990 (more men than women claim to have no religious affiliation). When age is taken into consideration, 25% of young adults say they have no religious affiliation.

From its founding, many Americans have insisted we are a “Christian” nation which has generally meant a Protestant nation. This Landscape Survey shows that Protestants are quickly losing ground. A mere 51% of Americans now call themselves Protestant. Since it appears this trend will continue, this country will very soon become a minority Protestant nation.

What Is Religious Literacy?

Before we go any further let’s decide what we mean by religious illiteracy. Of course, to be religiously literate is the opposite of being religiously illiterate. To be religiously literate has nothing to do with one’s faith. It has to do with a shared vocabulary and basic knowledge of what a specific religion is about. Professor Diane Moore, Religion Professor at Harvard Divinity School believes a person who is religiously literate should have an understanding of:

• the basic belief systems of world religions
• the diversity within each belief system
• how religion affects social events, culture, politics
• the role religion has played in history

You can see that Professor Moore makes a distinction between what she calls a “personal devotional practice and the academic study of religion.” Most scholars who study religion believe there is a difference between learning religion which is devotional and learning about religion which is more objective, cultural, and historical. One is not more important than the other.

The Scope of Religious Ignorance

I think religious illiteracy exists because there is a tendency today among religious people to put more emphasis on religious piety than on religious knowledge. There are about 4,200 religions in the world so it is understandable that most people cannot have much knowledge about all of these religions. However, you would think that most people would be conversant with their own religion. This assumption would be mistaken. American religion tends to be Bible-based — a Gallup poll in 2002 discovered that 93% of Americans own a Bible. But do they know what is in it? The answering is a resounding “No.”

The Christian Century magazine ran an article in November 2009 on Biblical illiteracy. The article referred to a survey in 2007 (Kelton Research) that was later captured in headlines across America: “More Americans Know Big Mac Ingredients Better Than Ten Commandments.”

A 1950 Time magazine article mentioned that Professor of Religion, R. Frederick West, had tested over 2,000 students in his years of teaching. Most of these students had religious backgrounds. In spite of this training, most of them could not even name the four Gospels or had the slightest idea what Jesus stressed as the two greatest commandments.

Another religion professor, Stephen Prothero, points out in his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t that 67% of Americans admit to treating the Bible seriously in that they believe answers to all of life’s basic questions can be found in the Bible. In spite of this elevated view of the Bible, only half of these same Americans can name even one of the four gospels. More astounding is that most of them cannot name the first book of the Bible. This adult ignorance of the Bible holds true for young people. Half of all high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah are the names of a married couple in the Bible.

The irony here is that Christians want the rest of the world to honor the Bible. They, themselves, only honor it by picking and choosing what they pay attention to in the Bible. Religious illiteracy is even more pronounced when considering any knowledge outside one’s own religion.

Why is Religious Literacy So Important?

At this point, you may ask, “So what?” Why is everyone making such a fuss about religious literacy? Remember, religious literacy has nothing to do with one’s belief system, whether devout Christian or confirmed atheist. For better or worse, Biblical knowledge is imbedded within Western art, music, literature, philosophy and politics. To fully understand how religion relates to cultural interests is to better understand life in general. Professor Prothero believes that a well informed citizen of this country needs to have a minimal acquaintance of basic information in the Bible. But that is not enough because the world is quickly becoming a global village. This means we need to understand the “core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.”

Daily, we are exposured to global issues that are by shaped by religion. "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,” says Professor Prothero. He further adds, “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.”

Not only does religion affect politics and national decisions in all countries, understanding biblical allusions in Western literature is impossible without a basic knowledge of common bible stories. Think of Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and the reference the Ghost of Christmas Present makes to the nativity. What about John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath where he uses the biblical story of the Hebrew people to highlight the struggle of the Joad family?

Even Hollywood gets into the act. If you saw the movie Mission Impossible you may remember the character Tom Cruise played who receives a strange email from Job@Job3:14 (never mind that this is not a possible email address). Biblical names pop up all the time in the movies: The spacecraft in Deep Impact that was destined to save earth is named Messiah. Matrix Reloaded is loaded with people who have biblical names: Trinity, Seraph, Cain, Abel and Malachi.

Religions of other cultures can shed light on current events. Most people see the Somali pirates as desperate men trying to “make a living” in an impoverished country. What few Americans know is that this behavior is grounded in the behavior of Muhammad and his friends after they moved from Mecca to Medina in 622. This migration from a thriving commercial center to a remote farming location left them without work or a means of supporting themselves. To avoid starvation and death Muhammad used an old Arabian tradition called ghazu which we would call kidnaping and ransom. They would attack caravans and capture the camels and their drivers. The owners of the caravans could get their property back of they paid the appropriate ransom. The Somali pirates are using a time-honored tradition for making money.

Why is it important to know this? It is possible that official denunciations of these pirates will have more impact if they come from Muslim leaders. It’s as if a foreign country would denounce the evils of subprime lending practices in America. Many people here would discount these condemnations as mere un-American rantings. Americans would pay more attention if their own leaders said the same thing. This is not to say, for example, that other non-Muslim countries should not be involved in dealing with Somali piracy. Understanding the historical setting of Arab piracy can help countries find more effective solutions to this problem.

Religious illiteracy can greatly contribute to increased human prejudice, misunderstanding, and violence. This is not to say religious literacy is the sole cause of these human frailties but it certainly hinders humankind’s attempts to offer “respect of pluralism, peaceful coexistence and cooperative endeavors in local, national and global arenas” says Professor Moore. She wants people to know that “religious illiteracy is often a contributing factor in fostering a climate whereby certain forms of bigotry and misrepresentation can emerge unchallenged and thus serve as one form of justification for violence and marginalization.”

Examples of these tensions belong to a very long list: anti-Semitism and the treatment of Muslims in countries where they are a minority. Perhaps even worse is the belief religious bigots of all religions share that declares "we are right and you are wrong." We see this in Christianity between Roman Catholics and Protestants. How many hundreds of years have Sunni Muslims and Shi’i Muslims been fighting?

Can Religious Illiteracy Be Converted to Religious Literacy?

Many religion professors believe the answer is "Yes" if this country will put religion back into standard education. This suggestion immediately raises concerns about the separation between church and state. However, the the U.S. Supreme Court has made a distinction between teaching religion in the schools and teaching about religion in the schools. The former is prohibited, the latter is encouraged.

In 1963 The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that schools could not require Bible reading in the classroom. The ruling stood even after an appeal was upheld which meant that the case went on to the Unites States Supreme Court. The highest court in the land also upheld the notion that teaching religion was prohibited (only one Justice dissented) even if it was done indirectly such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer or reading Bible verses without comment.

Nevertheless, the Justices made the point that knowing about religion should be part of every child’s education. The majority opinion was written by Tom Clark who said, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion … and its relationship to the advance of civilization."

Professor Prothero strongly supports teaching about religion in our public schools.
"Training in religious literacy provides citizens with the tools to better understand religion as a complex and sophisticated social/cultural phenomenon and individual religious traditions themselves as internally diverse and constantly evolving as opposed to uniform, absolute and ahistorical. Learning about religion as a social/cultural phenomenon also helps people recognize, understand and critically analyze how religion has been and will continue to be used to justify the full range of human agency from the heinous to the heroic."

Another advantage of religious literacy is the ability of people to think more critically about religious claims that constantly assail our sensibilities. Once people are trained in religious literacy they can learn to question the accuracy of universal claims such as "Islam is a religion of peace" or "Judaism and Islam are incompatible."

These religious scholars are all in agreement that our country should start teaching courses in world religions in middle-school followed by a required course in the Bible during high school and then making college students take at least one course in religious studies. These classes would avoid all faith-based teaching and religious dogma. Even though these types of classes could not guarantee the abuse of religion, they just might “make it more difficult for such bigotry and chauvinism to be unwittingly reproduced and promoted.”


Apczynski, J. (1982). Foundations of religious literacy. New York: University Press of America.

Bowker, J. (2006). World religions: The great faiths explored & explained. New York: DK Publishing.

Kurtz, L. (2006). Gods in the global village: The world's religions in sociological perspective. New York: Pine Forge Press.

Moore, D. (2007). Overcoming religious illiteracy: A cultural studies approach to the study of religion in secondary education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Nash, R. & Bishop, P. (2009). Teaching adolescents religious literacy in a post-9/11 world. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Publishing.

Prothero, S. (2008). Religious literacy: What every American needs to know--and doesn't. San Francisco: HarperOne.

Wright, A. (1993). Religious education in the secondary school: Prospects for religious literacy. New York: David Fulton Publishers.

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