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A Prize Proves the Hunger for Religious Knowledge

CAS Professor Stephen Prothero says Americans are very religious, but know little about religion. Photo by Vernon Doucette

It used to be that a book about a nation’s ignorance of religion would be quickly relegated to the dusty shelves or the remainder table. No more — religion, and what we don’t know about it, is now a hot topic, as Stephen Prothero knows well. Prothero saw more evidence of that last week when his book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t won the 2007 Quill Book Award in the religion and spirituality category. “I thought I had a chance, but I was definitely very surprised to learn that I won,” says Prothero, a professor and chair of the religion department in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The book, published this spring by HarperSanFrancisco, details the widespread ignorance of religion among Americans, their own included, and suggests including religion education in schools and colleges. Religious Literacy was a hit, making the New York Times best-seller list and landing Prothero on the likes of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

“People get the elevator pitch, which is that Americans are incredibly religious, but they don’t know anything about religion,” Prothero says. “They get it because that describes themselves. Another part of it is that people get that the stakes are high, especially because of Iraq and the war on terror. They understand that this isn’t a purely academic matter.”

The Quill Awards were established by publishers and other businesses in 2005, “the first literary prizes to reflect the tastes of all the groups that matter most in publishing — readers, booksellers, and librarians,” according to the organization. Five books are nominated in each of 19 categories, and some 6,000 booksellers and librarians are invited to cast their votes for the winners.

Among the books also nominated in the religion and spirituality category were American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion by Paul M. Barrett and The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief by Francis S. Collins.

The Quill Awards ceremony will be held at Lincoln Center on October 22 and televised on October 27 on NBC-TV’s Universal stations.

Prothero, who is teaching the introductory Religion and Culture class this semester, recently signed up to write another book for general readers. “It’s going to be called The Great Religions, basically an introduction to the great world religions,” he says. “I’m going against the ‘all religions are the same’ kind of idea that is out there in some other books like this. It will emphasize more the differences between the world’s religions, rather than their similarities.”

His publisher has high hopes for it, and Prothero acknowledges that he has come a long way from his first book, in 1996, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott. That one, he says, “sold about 500 copies.” 

Taylor McNeil can be reached at tmcneil@bu.edu.