Book Notes: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t

Essential reading for those interested in the role of religion in American life is Religious Literacy: What Every American Need to Know—And Doesn’t by Stephen Prothero.  Through the pages of his evocative study, Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, laments over the paradoxical fact that “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.”

The volume is divided into three main sections.  Part I lays out the problem that America is a nation of religious illiterates.  Some 75% of the nation’s adults believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.”  More than 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.  Just one half of all Americans can name even one of the four Gospels of the New Testament.

And fewer than half can identify Genesis as the first book of the Old Testament.  Even more alarming, professed evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

Part II, addressing the historical origins of this deficiency, is divided into two subsections.  The first, “Eden (What We Once Knew)” provides an historical overview of Anglo-American education back to the seventeenth century Puritans, whose New England Primer set the pattern for teaching children the basic contents of the Bible.  Subsequent generations were similarly informed through Noah Webster’s Speller, McGuffey’s Readers, and pious schoolbooks published throughout the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth.

The second subsection, “The Fall (How We Forgot),” as the title suggests, describes the emergence of Religious illiteracy, set into motion during the early nineteenth century by a number of developments.  Among these was the demise of Puritanism and subsequent emergence of the Second Great Awakening.  This latter movement deemphasized doctrinal differences between different denominations while affirming emotional manifestations of faith over religious knowledge as essential for individual salvation.    

Part III “The Proposal” offers suggestions for reclaiming religious literacy.  Both one’s family and church can contribute to this process. But the author frames the problem as a civic issue, provocatively proposing that religion be taught as an “objective academic discipline…in public schools.”

Sensitive to the controversial nature of this suggestion he asserts that “teaching about religion—as distinct from preaching religion—is not prohibited by the First Amendment’s ban on the ‘establishment of religion.’”

Also contained in Prothero’s spritely-written volume is an “A Dictionary of Religious Literacy”—an extensive alphabetical list of terms and concepts dealing with religion in all its forms.  The author concludes his work with a “Religious Literacy Quiz” along with answers, inviting readers to test their own knowledge.

In essence, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t, is worth possessing, both as an informative history and valuable reference work.

Newell G. Bringhurst, a retired COS Professor of History and Political Science welcomes responses and comments at [email protected]m

One thought on “Book Notes: Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t

  1. The literary genius of The Bible is that the multiplicity of voices (those who wrote of their experience of YHWH) is so varied that it engages so many different readers in different ways. In essence it is a vast Rorschach test which allows people to believe what they want to believe.

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