Need to Know

It’s particularly encouraging when the first book I finish in a year is an important one. I try my best to read books that won’t disappoint, but the thing about books is that you sometimes can’t tell until the end. In any case, I can highly recommend Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. It’s easy to acquire blinders, especially when you stick with a subject through childhood, three degrees, and a career of teaching and editing in that same field. You kind of think other people can see how important it is. Having grown up religious, I was well aware that other people didn’t share my family’s convictions, but it was pretty clear about the continuing uproar of prayer being deemed unconstitutional in public schools that many Americans were concerned about religion. Or so it seemed in my small town.

Prothero, a specialist in American religion, demonstrates in this book just how little we really know about religion—any religion. He traces this lack of knowledge to the Second Great Awakening and the conviction that belief required Christians not to study religion, but to feel it. This “ethic” of knowing little about what you believe, he suggests, became dominant and has reigned ever since. Clearly, watching the results of the presidential election, many people have no idea what Christianity has historically taught, or in official channels, continues to teach. They know that they feel it is right, but they can’t quite say what “it” is. Most Americans fare even worse when it comes to other religions. As a culture we remain very religious. It’s just that we don’t know what we say we believe. Belief has become politicized and it bears little resemblance to what its historic roots have been.

Critics will say that of course people like Prothero—he’s a religion professor after all—will say that we should know about his subject. The truth, however, goes much deeper than that. The world is a very religious place and we have effectively blocked our children’s way to learn about it. Religion motivates billions of lives, but most Americans know very little about it. Those of us who’ve spent our lives studying it are often condemned to stints of unemployment because what we know is deemed unimportant to Wall Street. Religious Literacy, although the statistics are a bit outdated after nearly a decade, remains more relevant than ever. The potential to learn about religion is widely available. The spirit may be willing, but the mind, it seems, is weak.

6 responses to “Need to Know

  1. I think people with the time and enthusiasm to truly learn about a religion through study of its texts and teachings have always been a minority. Most people have a highly selective and often apocryphal knowledge that derives from their family and from influential teachers (such as the local priest) – and too many “holy” men have been creative with religion for their own gain.

    And large-scale organised religions – that are anchored by the majority’s yearning for simplicity and stability, and absolute and eternal truths – do little but propagate injustice.

    Where is the incentive to learn the teachings of religions that thrive on denial of essential human complexity? Perhaps there is a God and a divine truth, or perhaps a pantheon of capricious gods, but too much of religion is a political tool rather than an honest quest for revelation.

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    • These are all good points. Prothero suggests (and I tend to agree) that without making judgments about the world’s various religions we have to realize that they motivate much of human activity and the only sensible response is to try to understand them. I would also suggest that every religion is too complex for complete understanding, but getting an idea of what’s going on is pretty important. You’re also right that religions are often abused and that adds a whole new layer of complexity. Thanks for the thoughts!

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  2. I’m thinking of your podcast, “Ch-ch-changes” and wondering how perennial of a concerns, of “We’ve forgotten what our religion was [or is!] about”, is. People tinker with their religions’ innards in response to stimuli—or “new knowledge” (the arresting phrase you used in the podcast), and tweaks that help them deal with their problems survive and spread. Academic history of religions, as beautiful and poetic as it is, seems orthogonal to solving modern problems—even though people turn to the past for inspiration for solutions, they do so in a very piecemeal, engineering-like manner, rather than with an eye for comprehensive understanding of the past on its own terms.

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    • Quite right (and thank you for your kind words). Religions are far more complex than most people think. There is an unhealthy ridicule factor about many aspects of life—religion being one of them—where people are made uncomfortable about saying what they really believe. In that silence strange ideas grow. While Prothero is right that we should know the basics about religion, I would suggest that nobody understands religion completely. The academy makes the mistake of speaking only to itself too often.

      Overall, and I wrote this somewhere on this blog, I would suggest that there are as many religions as there are people. Everyone’s understanding of what they believe is individual and different from others. Still, the overarching grand categories (Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) help us begin to understand where others are coming from, I think.

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  3. I have two degrees in Religious Studies, and I earned them in a hailstorm of controversy, when God fearing, Bible thumping Christians, got wind that a Canadian born, gay man, was studying Religion, and was a believing Christian. Oh My God, what a trial that was.

    You are right, people who go to church, don’t read their bibles, at least most of them don’t, except those preachers or ministers that direct them to do so or face hellfire and damnation. I read an essay a few days ago about RED state Christians, and how they live such insular lives, they believe in set beliefs, they know a set gospel, and that is the end of that story. This is very scary because all these people voted in huge numbers because of three word statements tossed at them liberally, and they took those words as gospel, AND they VOTED.

    You cannot teach a Christian anything new, because they know everything there is to know about God and the Bible. Because they were probably taught that early on. I don’t know many God fearing Christians who would engage in religion discussion, that stepped outside their comfort zone.

    I learned a lot studying religion “By the Book.” I also learned a lot by life’s practical experience. I know what my bible says, we all do, those of us who have read/studied/and professed any allegiance to a religious faith body.

    If you asked a God fearing Christian what they know about their bible, I guarantee you they can quote Leviticus, Genesis, and John 3:16, with ease. But ask them to illuminate what they are saying is like talking to a wall.

    This is seriously dangerous, the monster we have let out of Pandora’s box. If there is a God, He is taking the piss … Religious thought may rule politics, or the tenets of Christian belief, that is enshrined by the Founding Father’s. I don’t believe the greater religious believing population, has any idea what they believe, but they are going to find out pretty damned quick.

    The rubber is going to meet the road very soon, and all those Christians that believe are going to call out the name of God at some point, not knowing what they are going to do with Pandora’s box, and God is going to reply, “You thought you knew me, but ya didn’t !”

    What people don’t know about the little things is going to force all these bible believing Christians to rethink everything they THINK they KNOW.

    I’m so glad I live in Canada. Because insanity is coming and God has nothing to do with it. Mark my words, Christians in the U.S. are seriously in for it. Their bibles are not going to save them this time.

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    • You encapsulate my fears well! One of the interesting things about Prothero’s treatment is that he traces this history of why people do NOT study religion, and it falls along the lines you’ve narrated. These are people who want to believe it, not understand it. It’s also a huge departure from the history of Christianity up until the “Great Awakening” since before then people were generally interested in learning about what their religion taught them.

      There have been some interesting sociological studies about Bible reading lately (OUP will be publishing a couple of books about this in the coming months). The problem is some sociologists have suggested sociological surveys are inherently flawed and give false results. 11/9 and Brexit both proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt in my poor, addled mind.

      You are quite correct that those who elected Trump out of religious concerns were seriously, seriously misguided. Judgement day may be closer than we imagined!

      Thanks for the thoughts.

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