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Religious illiteracy rampant among U.S. population, Prothero says

Author and Boston University professor Stephen Prothero speaks March 10 at Union Forum. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)
Author and Boston University professor Stephen Prothero speaks March 10 at Union Forum. (Photo by Morris Abernathy)

JACKSON, Tenn.March 10, 2010 – Despite the fact that the United States is one of the most religious nations in the world, Americans know very little about other world religions or even about the religions they affirm, Stephen Prothero said March 10 at Union University.

“You’re not an educated person, you can’t understand the world, unless you know something about religion,” Prothero said.

Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University and author of the bestselling book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn’t,” spoke in the Carl Grant Events Center as part of the 11th annual Union Forum luncheon lecture series.

Prothero’s book inspired a Time magazine cover story and has landed him on several talk shows such as The Daily Show and The O’Reilly Factor. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree in religion from Harvard and is a frequent guest on National Public Radio.

He is also the author of “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” and has written for Salon.com and The New York Times Magazine.

His address focused on the topic of religious literacy – how widespread religious illiteracy is in the United States, how it came about and what can be done about it. Raised in Cape Cod, Mass., Prothero spent the beginning of his academic career in Georgia before moving to Boston. After the transition, he noticed something about his students that troubled him.

“My students seemed confused very quickly in my classes,” he said. “We weren’t on the same page.”

He joked that when he referred to the biblical book of Matthew, his students thought he was talking about “Friends” star Matthew Perry. He decided to give them a simple quiz to determine their knowledge not only of Christianity, but of other world religions as well – with questions asking them to identify the four gospels, to name the holy book of Islam, etc. Almost 90 percent of the students failed.

“I knew they would do poorly, but I didn’t think they would do that poorly,” he said.

That was the catalyst for Prothero’s interest in the topic of religious literacy as an academic pursuit. He quickly determined that religious illiteracy was rampant among the U.S. population, and as evidence he cited statistics indicating that only half of Americans can name one of the four gospels.

Such illiteracy poses problems not only for religious communities, but for academic pursuits as well, as Prothero argued that it’s impossible to understand J.S. Bach, T.S. Eliot, El Greco or many other important historical figures without an adequate understanding of the Bible.

The problem also affects U.S. civic life, Prothero said, as politicians often try to make connections between their religious values and public policy issues, but the U.S. citizenry as a whole doesn’t understand those connections – and can’t challenge religious-based claims that politicians might make. He added that lack of knowledge about the world’s religions affects U.S. foreign policy as well, arguing that people’s religious beliefs are typically core motivations that trump their economic and political interests.

Prothero suggested that the United States owes its level of religious illiteracy to several factors – among them U.S. Supreme Court decisions that prohibited the devotional reading of the Bible and prayer in public schools and the rise of evangelicalism that brought with it a greater emphasis on emotion than on the intellect.

In many evangelical circles, loving Jesus became more important than knowing about the Jesus being loved, Prothero said, and Jesus became detached from the biblical narrative.

To combat the problem, Prothero suggested that the United States mandate two public school courses for high school students – one on the Bible and one on world religions – that would stick to teaching basic facts about religion. Such courses would pass constitutional muster, he argued, because the Supreme Court has not prohibited the study of religion, and has even promoted it as long as it’s not done in a sectarian way.

He also encouraged citizens to claim responsibility for their own religious education, and said people should spend time reading great religious texts in their efforts to become more religiously literate.

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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