Monday, March 05, 2007

Religious Ignorance

While the New York Times Magazine was looking at the science of religious belief this weekend, the Washington Post was looking at the ignorance of America's religious faithful.

Americans are the most religious of the developed nations, but they really tend to know very little about the tradition in which they believe -- so says Stephen Prothero in his new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't.

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural -- from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

These are just two of the depressing statistics in Stephen Prothero's provocative and timely Religious Literacy. The author of American Jesus (2003) and the chair of the religion department at Boston University, Prothero sees America's religious illiteracy as even more dangerous than general cultural illiteracy "because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture, because religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil."

In this book, the author combines a lively history of the rise and fall of American religious literacy with a set of proposed remedies based on his hope that "the Fall into religious ignorance is reversible." He also includes a useful multicultural glossary of religious definitions and allusions, in which religious illiterates can find the prodigal son, the promised land, the Quakers and the Koran.

The condition Prothero describes in Religious Literacy is unquestionably one manifestation of a more general decline in the public's cultural and civic knowledge. According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, only one third of Americans can name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Is it any more startling that only one third can identify the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount?

Read the whole review.

As someone who was raised Catholic, I was often amazed at how little the nuns knew about the Bible they were teaching us. Admittedly, we were kids and they probably weren't too concerned with tough questions from little minds. But I was always a skeptic and I tormented the nuns with logic questions about an illogical faith.

As I grew up and rejected Catholicism completely, I took great joy in tormenting my Christian friends with questions about their faith that they couldn't answer. There was very little compassion in me at that time for a faith that I felt was corrupt and morally bankrupt.

What troubles me now is that so many believers do not know the basics of their faith. And that same ignorance translate into other areas of their lives, especially science and politics. It seems as though religion in this country is about a blind faith, not an examined faith.

I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard's leap to faith, a move made necessary when one comes to grips with the paradoxes inherent in the Christian tradition. Kierkegaard didn't believe we could inhabit the middle ground between doubt and faith, that we could hold both ideas in our minds simultaneously. I think we can, and I think that many modern Christians would benefit from an examined faith. In fact, for many, it might make their faith stronger and more compassionate.

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