The Gray Area of Religious Literacy

Disclaimer: This post may not sit well with you, as it deals with a topic that some people find sensitive and/or personal. While my response to that is not quite "Deal with it," you have been warned. I'm not going to pull any punches.

Every year, Western Washington University selects a book for its "Western Reads" program, which is supposed to "promote intellectual engagement, community, and conversation" according to the website. The other time I actually read one of these selections, I definitely had a conversation... but it was a somewhat frustrated, somewhat snarky conversation with a friend about the poor quality of the writing. That was the 2008-2009 school year, however, and this is now. The 2011-2012 Western Reads selection is Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn't, by Dr. Stephen Prothero, and it's an entirely different book bag of worms. (Incidentally, the terribly-written book I didn't finish reading in 2008 was also about religion and America, but that's somewhat beside the point.)

I very much look forward to attending the Q&A with Dr. Prothero when he visits Western to discuss the book. I hope I get to ask him a few questions regarding his view on religion as it relates to public education, and indeed the relevance of religion to public discourse.

I hope this, because his book seems dangerously wrongheaded.


Make no mistake; this book pays pretty lip service to other American religions, focusing almost exclusively on the Protestant and Catholic branches of Christianity (and even sidelining the Mormons at that). This is a grievous sin of omission. Prothero would have been better served writing a longer book or risking a few generalities for the sake of including Judaism and Islam at the very least—if true religious literacy, in the end, was his intent. But I grew very worried that this wasn't his intent.

Prothero is, self-admitted in the introduction, a Christian. He did not say "fundamentalist," nor "evangelical," and I am willing to take him on his word that this book is not meant to convert anyone. But it makes the case, and makes it hard, for religiosity when religious thinking has patently done nothing really good for the world. Prothero insists that "Religion Matters"—it's the heading of one of his chapters—but in most of his examples it really doesn't!

Somehow, as in all other things, religion gets put on a pedestal it greatly does not deserve. Prothero advocates mandatory religious studies education (not, he is careful to make clear, religious education) in public school, as early as possible. Religious symbolism and fables form a cultural "chain of memory," he insists. That's all well and good; the same could be said for fairy tales and other mythologies. But then he goes on to say that religion plays a large and unavoidably important role in history:
Puritanism in colonial New England profoundly influenced the course of American literature, art, economics, society, and politics. (57)
Of course it did. We have no reason to doubt that anyone back then did not believe in their religion, and beliefs inform our actions. But to nitpick about the Protestant theology that inspired the abolitionists? As if that really matters in the historical narrative? We might then require that third-graders learn the philosophical underpinnings of Bismarck's realpolitik, since that obviously mattered. To an elementary school student, the point isn't whether Jesus' words inspired the abolitionists (or, indeed, the slaveholders; same Bible, different story...) but that the abolitionists were in the right. And we do not need a Commandment to decide that owning another human being (indeed any sapient creature) as property is morally wrong.

(For the record, I might post more detailed commentary with quotes from the book.)

Prothero throws up weak defenses of religion like fistfuls of straw. He criticizes "secularists" for not recognizing the role religion plays in public discourse (he might have used the adjective "vital" there... I wouldn't) but I think his characterization of them as ivory-tower elitists and head-in-the-clouds academics is a very well-dressed straw man. He either does not understand the secular argument or will not understand it: religion has no place in public discourse because dogma is dangerous. And that's a topic for another post entirely.

"[V]irtually every scientific pioneer was a believer..." he says. So what? Their greatest works are profoundly non-religious, as is patently obvious. We do not have "Christian physics" because of Isaac Newton being Christian any more than we have "Islamic mathematics" (i.e. algebra) because of Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi and Omar Khayyam being Muslims. Indeed, mathematical principles have been discovered or invented independently across vast reaches of time and geography, with no respect to religion whatsoever. And religious dogma has been the chief strangler of scientific thought since ever. Statements accepted on faith alone do not suffer evidence and reason.

What's darkly hilarious is that Prothero admits to religion being a potent force for evil and gives many, many examples of this (historical and contemporary). He also claims that religion has done unique good works too... and fails to deliver any examples at all. How... interesting.


Returning to the thesis at hand, Prothero is most correct when he laments the state of religious literacy in America. It's truly a sad affair when an atheist might know more about Bible theology than a Baptist or a Catholic. And it's a very dangerous problem for our politics, both foreign and domestic, if nobody knows the motivations behind Islamic terrorism or our very own home-grown Taliban analogues, the Christian Dominionists and friends. Again, beliefs inform our actions. You can't write people off as crazy (that is, clinically insane); there are precious few real crazies out there. Of course, what is that snarky line? "If one person hears voices, he's schizophrenic. If ten thousand people hear voices, they're a religion."

So we can't let knowledge about religion fall by the wayside. Of course, even teaching about religion in public schools is a thorny proposition. (Some might say a crown of thorns... and no thornier than teaching evolution!) There's always the shadow of the First Amendment looming over public education. And I agree with Prothero that it has been wrongly interpreted. Nothing in either clause about religion says that you can't teach about religion in public schools, just that you can't teach religion. It's about facts, not dogma. Of course, the slope is slippery and very steep. Which religions should you teach about? You can't teach about just one; that'd be favoritism of a very bad sort. So how many then? Five? Ten? There are as many sects, cults, denominations, and so on as there are ways of disagreeing about what color your invisible pet unicorn is. And yet not only should public education remain neutral between all religious viewpoints, Prothero insists, but it should also "not [take] sides between religion and irreligion." (67)

I had a good laugh at that. I hope you did too. Why? Because neutrality is impossible where religious beliefs are concerned. It's a binary world-view: you either believe proposition X or you don't. You either believe Jesus was the Son of God, or you don't (if you're still a Christian and believe this, it's called the Ebionite heresy). You either believe Jesus was also a human being, or you don't (the Docetist heresy). You either believe Muhammad was Allah's chosen prophet, or you don't. You either believe in the God of Abraham, or you don't. You either believe in Nirvana and reincarnation, or you don't. And so on and so forth. How can you possibly teach any of this from a neutral standpoint?

The short answer: You can't. It's impossible. You have to treat each religious claim like it was a scientific claim, and scientific claims are just that—mere claims, until sufficient evidence is brought forth to support those claims. And guess what? There's hardly a scrap of evidence to support any religious theology, dogma, or what have you.

So what happens in the classroom? You have to say things like "Christians believe that Jesus was the Son of God, born of a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead" without seeming like you yourself believe it (can't take the side of religion). But wait! If you seem like you don't believe it, you're taking the side of irreligion! ERROR! ERROR! DANGER, WILL ROBINSON!


A large chunk of the book sees Prothero extolling the virtues of the Christian America that once was—at least from the standpoint of educating people in religious literacy. Oh, where to begin with the fallacies?.
Early (Christian-tinged) education cultivated religious literacy. Somewhat true, but not in the sense you want, Dr. Prothero. Back in the day Protestant teachings were truth, accepted and understood to be the fundamental logic of the universe. People knew the Bible stories and symbols and allusions because it was the fabric of society (and, they believed, Nature itself). What you call "religious literacy" is itself an idea corrupted by secular academia.

Back in the day, people memorized and recited the catechisms (and this was somehow a good thing). Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is dogma, sir, pure and simple. This is "good" for religious literacy only in the sense that being able to read a book is "good" for English literacy. That is, it's meaningless if you're unable to draw greater context and meaning from the work. Catechisms, dogma; all of that is meant to block critical thought.

"In fact, books on religion were far better sellers than books on politics, science, medicine, or law." (78) This is called an argumentum ad populum, or appeal to popularity. By that token, our society should be based on the Bible, Twilight, and Sarah Palin's autobiography. Oh wait, some people do believe that. Yikes.

Religion provides a "common culture." So does rationalism and secularism, or at least a framework for building one. Moreover I even think you're wrong: Religion only provides a common culture for the in-group. It is divisive by its very nature. And some elements of the culture can be wrong and even disgusting.

Religion used to be intellectual activity, but it has now become anti-intellectual and highly emotional. True. I would call this "showing its true colors." Intellectual arguments for religion are flawed or utterly vapid, in my experience. Civilization is growing out of that infantile need. I think people recognized this and knew that to maintain religious influence they needed a different tack. Thus, heart-not-head religion.

Religion permeated education in the past (so it should do so again). This is definitely an is-ought problem, or maybe a was-ought. Something like "religion is important, and so it ought to be important." Um, no. People used to be ignorant about things like whether the Earth went around the Sun. This doesn't mean we ought to teach those lessons again.

"[W]e may be at a tipping point where we are realizing that you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand..." (152) Implying what? That once you understand a religion you'll respect it? Not even close. With some it's even the opposite (e.g., Christian Dominionism).

Modern public education promotes a "culture of disbelief." Of course, if it's doing its job. Critical reasoning is a culture of disbelief, and any critical evaluation of religion will leave it a shambles. That said, there's nothing wrong with recognizing the symbols and allusions—we do it with fairy tales and other mythologies (or we should). There's no point in treating the world's "living religions" any different.

We might want to require that students take courses in religious studies, rather than subjects like trigonometry or calculus, which "the great majority" of them will find useless. The sound you heard was my head meeting my desk. I'd like to point out that the source statement comes from a quote within the book, from the late Dr. Warren A. Nord of UNC Chapel Hill, who, shockingly (not) was a freakin' intelligent design advocate who testified at the Kansas evolution hearings. That's pretty weaselly.

"There is nothing wrong with college professors raising theological arguments for or against monarchy, capitalism, or evolution." (175) Oh isn't there? What about arguments from the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Or the teacup currently sitting at the Earth-Sun L2 point?

Insisting that all religions are false is "inappropriate." Even when there's no good evidence that they're true? You do understand the burden of proof, right, sir? I mean, you're an academic. You couldn't just claim in a religious studies paper that Jews sacrifice Christian children without some pretty serious evidence, right? Same goes for religious truth. If the Hindu claim of reincarnation is true, for example, it would certainly influence my actions. There ought to be good reasons for believing these (quite noteworthy, if true) claims.


Consider the Greek myths we often read. Or the Native American creation stories. Or the African legends. These help us understand cultures both ancient and modern, and forge new links in the chain of memory. Being able to call on these cultural touchstones always enriches us. But we need not adhere to the culture that birthed them. We need not hold to the Baltimore catechism any more than we need to believe in Zeus, Vishnu, Coyote the Trickster, or Anansi. True literacy always means being away from (and often above) the source material; from that vantage point we can see the connections and secret origins that the author may never have guessed at. It does us little good to actually bring ourselves down to their level. It will do future generations little good to do the same with our works.

So again I must voice my concerns about the manner of your proposal, Dr. Prothero. Would you really promote learning about the world's religious traditions? Or would you inculcate every student in America with the same backwards-looking "education" that was championed by Godly men of yesteryear? Christian men founded America, but America is not and should not be a Christian nation any more than it should be a patriarchy. We're moving on, and a good thing too.