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Pray Tell: What Americans Don’t Know About Religion

CAS prof explores “religious illiteracy” in new book

Stephen Prothero, whose worst nightmare keeps him “worrying that I’m going to be on a TV show, and they’ll give me the religious literacy quiz from the book and I won’t know everything.” Photo by Vernon Doucette

Stephen Prothero remembers watching the standoff between federal agents and the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic religious group, in Waco, Texas, in 1993 and thinking that he knew the outcome, even if the FBI didn’t. “I’ve read the Bible, and I know something about American religion,” he says. “I felt I knew it was going to blow up and there was going to be a fire and everyone would die.” Prothero, now chairman of the religion department in the College of Arts and Sciences, was right — 75 people died in the firestorm that ignited as the FBI swept toward the building.

What Prothero took from that experience — that an understanding of religion is essential and that most people don’t have even a basic knowledge of it — started gnawing at him. After the 9/11 attacks, the simplistic discussions of Islam going on in the media and the political sphere reinforced his concerns. And during the 2004 presidential elections, where religion seemed to play a more prominent role than it had before, he found that few people really understood what the dispute was all about.

That widespread absence of basic religious knowledge drove Prothero to write Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, which is being released by HarperCollins San Francisco this month. It’s part argument, part history, but largely primer, based on the conviction that a shared understanding of religion is required by all responsible participants in our democracy. “The question is: what religious information do we need to be informed citizens?” he says.

Each year, Prothero gives his students what he calls a religious literacy quiz, and test scores are reliably abysmal. “Virtually everyone’s failed,” he says, “evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants, everyone.”

This is religious illiteracy, Prothero says, and the consequences can be dire. “Religious illiteracy makes it difficult for Americans to make sense of a world in which people kill and make peace in the name of Christ or Allah,” he writes. “Today, when religion is implicated in virtually every issue of national and international import . . . U.S. citizens need to know something about religion, too. In an era when the public square is, rightly or wrongly, awash in religious reasons, can one really participate fully in public life without knowing something about Christianity and the world’s religions?” Prothero thinks not. The result, he says, is that Americans are “too easily swayed by demagogues on the left or on the right.”

The long fall

The decline of religious literacy has been long in the making, according to Prothero. “Some people on the religious right think that the Warren Court in the early 1960s passed these rules against school prayer and kicked God out of the public schools, and therefore the students don’t learn any religion,” he says. “But that explanation was about 100 years too late.”

In fact, he says, religion as a subject was mostly pushed out of public schools in the mid-1800s, largely a result of what he calls “the Bible wars.” In that dispute, Protestants, who controlled the public school systems, insisted on using their version of the Bible in class. Catholics had their own translation, the Douay-Rheims, and conflict was intense between the two sides, especially in areas with large Catholic populations, such as Philadelphia, New York, and Cincinnati. In the end, both sides decided it would better to have no Bible in the classroom rather than the “wrong” Bible. The elimination of religious influence in public schools was mostly complete by the early 1900s.

Some school districts continued to use the Bible devotionally until 1963, when the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and devotional readings in schools. And while the court did not ban discussion of religion, Prothero points out, most people seemed unaware of that. “It wasn’t secular people who hated religion who undercut education about religion,” he says. “It was religious people who wanted the education tailored for their particular group. That precipitated a crisis and made us throw out education about religion altogether.” Nowadays, he says, religion might be mentioned in world history classes, but only in passing.   

Even churches and other religious institutions fail to adequately teach the Bible and other scriptures, says Prothero. He points to his students who failed the religious literacy quiz. “They didn’t learn anything in church — that’s a huge part of it,” he says. “They probably go to church as much as the general population, but they’re not learning anything there.” Young Catholics go to Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) classes, where they “learn they should be nice to their fellow man and might learn to list the seven sacraments,” he says. But they don’t know Bible stories.

“Protestants used to be well versed in the Bible," says Prothero. “To be a Christian wasn’t just to have Jesus in your heart; it was to know what Jesus said. Nowadays it’s about having a relationship with Jesus — it doesn’t matter what he said. Or it matters, but the fact that you don’t know doesn’t matter. One could imagine it shameful to be a Christian and not know anything about Christianity. But we’re not ashamed by that.”

Repairing the damage

What’s the solution? Prothero would like to see all public schools offer a Bible course and a world religions course. That suggestion draws flak from some of his colleagues, who advocate for religious scriptures courses instead of focusing on the Bible. Prothero counters with his civic argument: what religious information do we need to be good citizens? “To me it’s very clearly the Bible that’s the scripture of American politics,” he says. He turns to the Congressional Record for proof. “People in Congress are not quoting the Bhagavad-Gita or the Quran,” he says. “They are quoting the Bible.”

Learning about world religions is equally important, according to Prothero. Christianity should comprise about a fifth of that course, and students should learn about Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other major religions. “They need to know the difference between a Sunni and Shiite,” he says. “How else are we going to know what to do with the situation in Iraq if we do not know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites? When people are talking about civil war and sectarian violence, they are talking about two very specific communities that are killing one another. We need to know that.”

The next generation, he says, should have “some very basic familiarity with the key terms, the key symbols, the key beliefs and practices of these five or seven great religions of the world.”

He acknowledges that talk about teaching religion in public schools makes a lot of people nervous, often because many teachers think — incorrectly — that the Supreme Court doesn’t let them. According to Prothero, teachers have an absolute right to talk about religion, but not to proselytize, just as those teaching about American politics do not bring their own preferences into the classroom.

Prothero thinks religious studies should be required at universities, including BU. “It’s a very simple theory: someone walking out into the world in 2007 or 2008 with a bachelor’s degree who can’t tell you the difference between a Sunni and Shiite, and can’t tell you what the Good Samaritan is, is not an educated person,” he says. “I also don’t think they are prepared for citizenship the way they should be.” For those who have finished their formal schooling, Prothero suggests holding group discussions, similar to book clubs, of religious topics. And there’s always his Dictionary of Religious Literacy, which fills the final third of his book with definitions of terms and concepts, from atonement and Congregationalism to nirvana and the Torah. It’s not exhaustive, but instead focuses “on what U.S. citizens need to make sense of their country and the world,” he writes.

Prothero keeps bringing his argument back to the classroom. “How can we talk about whether the Hindu view of the afterlife makes any sense or whether it’s better than the Christian view if none of us knows anything about it?” he asks. “I want the classroom to be a space of conversation, but we can’t have conversation without basic knowledge.”

This article will be published in the Spring 2007 edition of

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