What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't
By Stephen Prothero
HarperSanFrancisco. 296 pp. $24.95
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?
A 2005 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly two-thirds of Americans endorse the simultaneous teaching of creationism and evolution in public schools. How can citizens know what creationism means, or make an informed decision about whether it belongs in classrooms, if fewer than half can identify Genesis? No doubt the same proportion of Americans think that Thomas Edison said, "Let there be light."
Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that "God helps those who help themselves." More than 10 percent think that Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and -- a finding that will surprise many -- evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.
It is less surprising but more dangerous, given America's role in the world, that the public knows even less about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism. As Prothero notes, President Bush repeatedly declared that "Islam is peace" in the months after 9/11, while the prophet Muhammad was called a "terrorist" by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. "Who was right?" Prothero asks. "Unfortunately, Americans had no way to judge."
The book's main concern, though, is ignorance about the role of religion in American history. Prothero dates the beginning of the long decline in our religious literacy to the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. The fervor of America's periodic cycles of revivalism, rooted in a personal relationship with God rather than in theology handed down by learned clergy, has always had a strong anti-intellectual as well as spiritual component.
Yet the author also sees the Protestant-influenced 19th-century schools as an important factor in maintaining the Puritan heritage of Americans as "people of the book." This may overestimate the religious influence of schools. It is hard to believe that religious literacy, already instilled by families and churches, needed reinforcement from the once ubiquitous McGuffey readers, which rendered the Ten Commandments in such rhymes as, "Thou no gods shall have but me/ Before no idol bend the knee." In 1880, the average American still had only four years of schooling (although the figure was higher in cities than in rural areas). Yet 19th-century autodidacts, including Abraham Lincoln (who had less than a year of formal education) and Robert Green Ingersoll, the orator known as "the Great Agnostic," achieved both religious and secular literacy by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible without any prompting from teachers.
Prothero views the 20th century's much sharper decline in religious literacy as a product of changes in both religion and society. One ironic factor is an emphasis on a bland tolerance that, while vital to pluralistic American democracy, has also discouraged our awareness of religious distinctions. A politician may intone the phrase "Judeo-Christian" in every speech, but Jews still do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and Christians do. If no one knows what "Messiah" means, though, it hardly matters. But one inexplicable omission from Prothero's analysis is the post-1950 shift from a print to a video culture, with its incalculable erosion of all forms of cultural literacy. Many of the religious allusions and metaphors explained by Prothero in his glossary were once as common as the universal reference points now supplied by television.
The weakest part of this otherwise excellent book is Prothero's proposed remedy: high school and college courses dealing with the historical and cultural role of religion. As the author rightly notes, teaching about religion -- as distinct from preaching religion -- is not prohibited by the First Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion." But given the failure of so many schools to inculcate the most elementary facts about American history, it is hard to imagine that most teachers would be up to the task of explaining, say, the subtleties of biblical arguments for and against slavery. Furthermore, a curriculum that would meet with the approval of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and nonreligious parents would probably be a worthless set of platitudes.
Prothero movingly calls on Americans to reconstruct the "chain of memory" that once made the acquisition of religious knowledge as natural as breathing. But religion is no longer the air we breathe, and it is doubtful that schools can accomplish what parents and congregations cannot or will not in a society where people read fewer and fewer books of any kind -- including the book they consider the word of God. ·
Susan Jacoby is the author of "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism."