Americans’ religious ignorance stuns author

  • By Susan Campbell / The Hartford Courant
  • Saturday, April 7, 2007 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Quick: Name the Four Gospels. How about the Ten Commandments? The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism? Seven Catholic Sacraments? Hello? Anybody?

America purports to be a religious nation, yet what we know about religion is, well, sinful. In his new book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t,” Stephen Prothero, head of Boston University’s religion department, says it’s time to teach religion in America – not devotion, but religion.

Prothero and others have found a shocking lack of knowledge about the religions to which Americans purport to belong, bested only by their ignorance of religions to which they don’t belong. Surveys say only half of America’s adults can name any of the four Gospels. Most Americans can’t name the first book of the Bible. Only one-third know that Jesus (not Billy Graham) delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most Americans think Jesus was born in Jerusalem. (It was Bethlehem.) Yet, writes Prothero, “World events have been shaped by Confucian ritual, Jewish law, Christian love and Buddhist compassion.”

In this country, Christianity, in particular, has migrated from doctrinal and narrative components to a focus on religious experience that doesn’t appear to require a knowledge of the Scriptures, said Prothero.

“Being a Christian has become synonymous with having a born-again experience or opposing abortion and stem-cell research,” he said. “American Christians focus on loving Jesus rather than learning what he taught.”

In his research, Prothero said he was surprised to learn that the U.S. government pays little attention to religion when forming foreign policy. That observation got a big laugh March 19, when Prothero appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

For example, Prothero said, “U.S. ambassadors to Muslim-majority countries are typically political cronies who have no training in Islam. And there is no policy of having our ambassador to India, say, know something about Hinduism. This is a scandal.”

The problem is not hypocrisy, said Prothero, so much as ignorance.

“When I give my students the religious-literacy quiz that’s in my book, I find Catholics who don’t know the Seven Sacraments, Protestants who can’t name any of the four Gospels and Jews who can’t name the first book of their Bible. That doesn’t make them pseudo-religious. It just makes them believers who don’t really know what they are believing in,” he said.

Prothero was raised Episcopalian in Osterville, Mass. During college, he flirted with evangelical Christianity, “But,” he said, “I had a lot of friends who were atheists, agnostics and Jews, and I finally found the imperative to try to convert them too much to bear. Today, I’m happy to be in a position where I have more questions than answers when it comes to my personal faith.”

In “Religious Literacy,” Prothero confesses to rather haphazard attendance of Lutheran church. In fact, in one anecdote from the book, he asked his 8-year-old daughter to name someone in the Bible besides Jesus. She thought a moment, and said, “Tom.” He decided to give her that one; perhaps she enjoys a closer relationship than most with Thomas, one of the apostles, known for his doubting.

He suggests religion be added as the fourth “R” in American education. (A recent Time magazine echoes his suggestion for teaching the Bible, the historical best-selling book ever, in schools.) After all, Prothero said, the Constitution doesn’t prohibit teaching about religion. It bans teaching a particular religion.

“I think we need to take religion seriously, and I’m optimistic that we will learn to do so in the public schools,” he said. He credits the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an altar call for public acknowledgment of the importance of religion.

“I think there (is) now a fairly high level of public resolve to do something about our ignorance,” he said. “Moreover, the momentum is building. Most Americans are in the middle when it comes to the so-called culture wars. We hear about the wacky folks on the secular left (who fear almost any discussion of religion in the schools) and on the religious right (who want their religion to be the only religion taught in the schools). But the vast majority of us are in between, and that is where the hope lies.”

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