The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Globe Life

July 6, 2007

Book review: Books combat religious, culinary illiteracy

‘Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t’

By Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero, the chair of the religion department at Boston University, has written an interesting, if somewhat dense, book on the astonishing state of religious illiteracy in this country and what he proposes be done about it.

He argues convincingly that no one can be fully educated and prepared to deal with the social and political issues the world faces without some basic knowledge of the Bible, Quran and other major religious texts as well as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other major faiths. How can you understand the problems we are currently facing in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, if you have no concept of the Islamic factions at work and what compels them? How do you know whether to believe those who call Islam a religion of war or those who call it a religion of peace? Only if you have some basic grounding in the Quran and the basic beliefs of the major divisions of Islam can you make your own decision.

On a less calamitous level, if you don’t know the basics about religions and their major books, you just wind up looking dumb and feeling puzzled when allusions to those things are thrown around, as they commonly are. Prothero argues that a great deal of American culture is grounded in our common understanding of various shorthand terms, so that (at least up until the recent past) when someone heard “good Samaritan” they knew exactly what the reference implied. Now, even well-educated people may be oblivious to the reference. Ten percent of Americans, according to one poll, believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Only 50 percent of adult Americans can name even one of the four gospels, and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible, never mind the five major world religions. If you wonder about your own religious literacy, there is an abbreviated version of the religious literacy quiz contained in the book online — www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/week1038/quiz.html — thanks to “Religion and Ethics Weekly” on PBS, which ran a segment on this book in May.

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