March 9, 2007
Stoopid for Jesus
Sixty percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments, and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.
Stephen Prothero, chair-
man of the religion depart-
ment at Boston University, isn’t laughing. Americans’ deep ignorance of world religions — their own, their neighbors’ or the combat-
ants in Iraq, Darfur or Kashmir — is dangerous, he says.
His new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, argues that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.
… “More and more of our national and international questions are religiously inflected,” he says, citing President Bush’s speeches laden with biblical references and the furor when the first Muslim member of Congress chose to be sworn in with his right hand on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.
“If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so?”
“If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda.”
Scholars and theologians who agree with him say Americans’ woeful level of religious illiteracy damages more than democracy.
“You’re going to make assumptions about people out of ignorance, and they’re going to make assumptions about you,” says Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis.
Goff cites a widely circulated claim on the Internet that the Quran foretold American intervention in the Middle East, based on a supposed passage “that simply isn’t there. It’s an entire argument for war based on religious ignorance.”
“We’re impoverished by ignorance,” says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches. “You can’t draw on the resources of faith if you only have an emotional understanding, not a sense of the texts and teachings.”
Prothero, of course, has an agenda: he wants all middle-schoolers to be taught about world religions, and high schoolers to take a course on the Bible. He also thinks that “biblical knowledge”—an oxymoron if ever I’ve heard one—should be part of history and literature courses. Oh, and he wants all college undergraduates to take at least one required course in religious studies. In other words, he’s a certified wingnut.
As for that Sodom and Gomorrah thing: everyone knows it was Cain and Abel.
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