Monday, May 21, 2007

Religious Literacy (Prothero): 1 - A Nation of Religious Illiterates

As I've mentioned previously, my motivation for starting this blog was a book I read called Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't, by Stephen Prothero, published this year (2007). One of the tasks I've set for myself here in the blog is to record some notes from this book and my response to it. Last time I posted some notes about the Introduction. In this post you'll find my notes for Chapter 1: A Nation of Religious Illiterates.

Prothero opens the chapter with an observation that I think is very important - both believers and non-believers are dissatisfied with the religious discourse we have today: "The emotions on both sides of this question are understandable, though the irony of the situation - in which each camp sees itself as a victim and believes that the other is seizing control of the country - seems lost on everyone concerned. The fact of the matter is that, in the American marketplace of ideas, neither faith nor faithlessness is close to either bankruptcy or monopoly." [22]

Part of it is the underlying paradox of the America's situation from its very beginnings, as Prothero points out: "Thanks to the establishment clause, the US government is secular by law; thanks to the free exercise clause, American society is religious by choice. Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious." [22]

Pursuing the motif with which he opened the book, Prothero notes the sharp contrast here with Europe: "Many theological doctrines that Europeans now dismiss as fables - heaven and hell, angels and the devil - are enthusiastically affirmed by the vast majority of Americans. Out of every ten adults in the United States, more than nine believe in God, more than eight say that religion is important to them personally, and more than seven report praying daily." [23]

Yet despite the pervasiveness of religion in people's lives, their religious literacy is low. In this chapter, Prothero includes his "Religious Literacy Quiz" which you can find online. You can certainly quibble with individual items on this quiz and how it is constructed, but as a rough-and-ready instrument for measuring religious literacy, it looks like it could do the job, since I think everybody would agree that someone who does not pass this quiz (which Prothero defines as a score of 60% or better) would definitely have some serious gaps in their religious knowledge.

Yet as Prothero reports, "most of my students flunked this exam." [28] These are college students at Boston University. Prothero also reports similar results from colleagues at UNC Chapel Hill and Wheaton College in Illinois.

He goes on to explain, however, that the study of religious literacy is not something that scholars have focused on, so there is basically not very much data to go on. Researchers have studied levels of church membership, what people believe about the supernatural or about social issues, such as the role of women in the church, but religious knowledge per se has not been systematically studied.

One anecdotal study was done by a journalist in 2005 who called up ten cosponsors of a bill in Alabama that promoted the public display of the Ten Commandments. Of the ten cosponsors, only one could name ten of the Commandments. [31]

True confession: I could only name 8 out of what are effective 12 commandments, since there are different versions of the commandments in the various versions of the Bible - I forgot to honor my father and mother, and I forgot not to bear false witness against my neighbors! Yet perhaps the more important thing to confess is this: after I listed the first four or five commandments that came to mind, the way I managed to dredge up the other ones that were bouncing around in my brain was by remembering the booming voice in Cecil B. DeMille's movie, The Ten Commandments. Even though I have spent decades of my life in formal education and now teach at a university, it was Hollywood who came to my rescue when taking that part of Prothero's quiz.

Prothero devotes specific attention to the fact that it is not just university students who are in trouble, but also people who are participants in church-sponsored education, including Catholic catechetical training. Prothero includes a very telling quote from John Cavadini of Notre Dame's Department of Theology: "The problem is that somehow the doctrines got lost and we were left with only our desires, hopes, fears, and dreams, together with broad-stroke connections to a few marquee items like Jesus, God (the relationship between them left fuzzy), the Spirit. Most other items were left behind in a penumbra of distinguished but cozy irrelevance." [34]

In what will be one of the most important themes in Prothero's book, he points to "a shift in emphasis from participating in the sacraments to loving Jesus and a growing tendency to reduce the sum of religion to moral behavior." Prothero will return again frequently to this point, not because he is uninterested in moral behavior, but because the question of moral behavior is, in fact, separate from the question of civic participation which is his main emphasis in this book.

The chapter concludes with what is for me one of the most thought-provoking anecdotes of the entire book. Prothero cites the jury deliberations for a murder trial in Colorado in 1995. While the jury debated whether or not to apply the death penalty, a member of the jury pulled out an actual Bible which he had with him and pointed out the Leviticus passage about "eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth" and "he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death." The juror then allegedly told the other members of the jury to go home and consult their Bibles and to pray on the verdict. The next day the jury unanimously voted for the death penalty. Ten years later, in 2005, the appeals process led to the Colorado Supreme Court overturning the decision, ruling that jurors were not allowed to consult the Bible. Prothero then explains:
"In the ensuing hue and cry, conservative Christians, drawing on time-honored culture wars rhetoric, denounced the decision. [...] Few noticed, however, just how impoverished were the exegetical skills of the jury. There are very few passages from the Hebrew Bible that are explicitly rejected in the New Testament, but Leviticus 24:20-21 is one of them, since in Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says, 'Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.' The purpose of citing this passage is neither to provide divine sanction for nonviolence nor to forestall a reading of the Bible in favor of capital punishment, but simply to offer yet another case study in the dangers of religious illiteracy. Were any jurors aware of Jesus' refutation? [...] At least for me,t he moral of this story is neither (as the Colorado Supreme Court ruled) that Americans should not bring Bibles into the jury box nor (as Focus on the Family argued) that they should. The moral is rather than it jurors are going to consult scripture - and, court rulings aside, they doubtless are - then those jurors should at least have the decency (and the piety) to try to get the Bible right.

Finally, I do have to point out that it was in this chapter I found what I think must be some kind of error in Prothero's notes that definitely should be corrected. At a certain point he says: "Even atheists and agnostics have a religious illiteracy rant. The Weststar Institute, the think tank behind the notorious Jesus Seminar (which took it upon itself in the 1980s and 1990s to decide what Jesus really said and did), describes itself as 'educational institute dedicated to the advancement of religious literacy.'" [37] I'm not sure why Prothero lists the folks at Weststar Institute as "atheists and agnostics," because they most assuredly are not that. I happen to be a big fan of the Weststar Institute publications such as The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus and The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition because they attempt to take complicated critical debates about the Biblical text and to present those debates for a lay audience. Fellows of the Jesus Seminar include fabulous folks such as John Dominic Crossan, Bernard Brandon Scott, et al. I'm guessing that Prothero got his note cards switched or something like that, perhaps mixing up Weststar Institute with a bona fide atheistic institute with a similar name.

So, those are my notes for Chapter 1. I'll be tagging future posts on this topic with the label prothero, so if you want to see any other posts I've added on this topic, just click on the prothero label link.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are restricted to Google accounts only. You can also contact me at