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 Religious Literacy, although the statistics are a bit outdated after nearly a decade, remains more relevant than ever.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.