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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Book Review: Religious Literacy

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't by Stephen Prothero

I was really hoping to get a lot out of this book. You see, I was raised with no religious education whatsoever. The only times I set foot in a church was for weddings and funerals. My family never discussed religion other than to laugh at the obvious religious wackjobs. And I am constantly asking my wife religious questions because her parents attempted to raise her Catholic (it didn't take). Now I know it may be hard to believe that anyone can grow up not knowing anything about religion, so let me give you just one example. I was taking an entry level political science class my freshman year in college and the professor used Pontius Pilate as an example to explain some concept (which I can't remember now) and I literally had never heard of the guy before and had no clue as to what the example represented. And I was too embarrassed to raise my hand and ask him to fill me in on Pontius Pilate since everyone else in the class seemed to be nodding their heads in understanding.

Now granted, I know a lot more about religion now then I did back then since I have taken it upon myself to get acquainted with the various myths our society seems to embrace. But my knowledge is by no means complete and thus I was excited to find a book claiming to teach me everything I need to know about religion in America. Unfortunately, I know little more after reading the book. The book is broken up into two parts. I'll start with the second, which is the actual list of facts (A Dictionary of Religious Literacy) that every American needs to know. And it does cover the basics, although not in great detail by any means. Most entries are a paragraph or two long and give a high level overview of the topic. This section is really not that bad, although personally, instead of alphabetizing the topics, I would have grouped them logically by religion (e.g. having all the topics on Christianity grouped together and then arrange them chronologically or by importance). But it does give a very basic list of mainstream religious topics that everyone should know.

The dictionary section of the book runs from p. 149 - 233 (85 pages). So what do the first 148 pages cover, you ask? Well, this is where my problem with the book lies. The first part of the book (and by far the bigger of the two parts) is basically a history of religious education in America and a plea to make it better. While this is a fine subject to write about, the book's title does not say "Why every American needs religious literacy" but rather "What every American needs to know" and yet the "why" part far outweighs the "what" part of the book. So you get just under 150 pages on the history of religious education and a justification for why it is important and then you get only 85 pages concerning what I thought was going to be the major emphasis of the book.

This is what I would have preferred. Condense the first 148 pages into the first few chapters. Short and sweet and to the point. Keep the next section (85 pages of the basic religious dictionary) as part two of the book. Then you have plenty of room left to add part three, which would cover more advanced topics for those who breezed through the basic dictionary. Now the book lives up to its name and also appeals to a wider audience.

Aside from the disappointing structure of the book, I have a few other qualms as well. Let's try this quote on for size:

"The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment requires of state government not just neutrality among religions but also neutrality between religion and irreligion. The current strategy of obeying the law by avoiding religion [in schools] may well be violating the Constitution, by indoctrinating students into a secular view of the world." (p. 130)

Indoctrinating students into a secular view of the world??? So I guess we need those stickers on biology textbooks after all? It is comments such as these scattered throughout the first part of the book that make me wonder if the author doesn't miss the good ol' days just a little too much.

"The question is turning from whether to teach about religion to how. And plainly the way to do that is to steer clear of both advocating religion and impugning it while at the same time communicating that individual religious convictions are to be treated, as a matter of both law and civility, with respect." (p. 132)

No, individual's rights to hold their religious convictions should be treated with respect, as outlined in the First Amendment, but the beliefs themselves are certainly open to criticism. Of course people should be treated politely and we should remember that many people take their particular religious beliefs very seriously and will not take criticism of those beliefs well. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't debunk them or question them. In fact, we need to teach our kids that no idea is immune from inquiry. A critical thinking class should be required right along side the author's recommended religion classes, unless of course that would be just more secular indoctrination.

"Two problems arise with thinking of religious literacy as moral instruction. First, this approach tends, at best, to confuse the agenda of spreading religious knowledge with the agenda of inculcating particular virtues. At worst, it sacrifices the former at the altar of the latter. In either case the educational goal shifts from making religiously literate citizens to making ethical citizens. In the process religion is reduced once again to "values," as if the world's religions cared not a bit about God, truth, or the afterlife." (pp. 141-142)

OK, I should cut him a break because he is trying to argue that religion should not be used for character or moral education in order to appease our fears about religious education in the schools. But seriously, isn't "values" about all that religion has left in this day and age? And he throws "God" and "the afterlife" in there with the truth??? I'm reminded of the old Sesame Street song "One of these things is not like the others..." Teach religion in schools the way you would teach Greek Mythology or Native American spirituality. But we don't look to either of these things for the truth. They are interesting stories that intrigue us and nothing more. If you aren't prepared to teach your own beliefs the same way, then you aren't ready to teach religion in our schools.
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