By CATHY LYNN GROSSMAN
Gannett News Service
April 14, 2007 – The Scrooge Report Post
Sixty percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments and 50 percent of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married, according to a Bible Literacy Project study.
Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, doesn’t think the study results are a laughing matter.
Americans’ deep ignorance of world religions — their own, their neighbors’ or the combatants in Iraq, Darfur or Kashmir — is dangerous, he says.
His new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, (HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, $24.95) argues that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.
Belief is not his business, says Prothero, who grew up Episcopalian and now says he’s a spiritually “confused Christian.” He says his argument is for empowered citizenship.
“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 copy of the 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.”
Says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, “We’re impoverished by ignorance. You can’t draw on the resources of faith if you only have an emotional understanding, not a sense of the texts and teachings.”
But if people don’t know Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities destroyed for their sinful ways, Campbell blames Sunday schools that “trivialized religious education. If we want people to have serious knowledge, we have to get serious about teaching our own faith.”
Prothero’s solution is to require those in middle school to take a course in world religions and those in high school to take one on the Bible. Biblical knowledge also should be melded into history and literature courses where relevant. He wants all college undergrads to take at least one course in religious studies.
He calls for time-pressed adults to sample holy books and history texts. His book includes a 90-page dictionary of key words and concepts from Abraham to Zen. There’s also a 15-question quiz — which his students fail every year.
But it’s the controversial, though constitutional, push into schools that draws the most attention.
In theory, everyone favors children knowing more. The National Education Association handbook says religious instruction “in doctrines and practices belongs at home or religious institutions,” while schools should teach world religions’ history, heritage, diversity and influence.
Only 8 percent of public high schools offer an elective Bible course, according to a study in 2005 by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools. The project is supported by Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that promotes free speech.
The study surveyed 1,000 high schoolers and found just 36 percent know Ramadan is the Islamic holy month; 17 percent said it was the Jewish day of atonement.
Goff says schools are not wholly to blame for religious illiteracy. “There are simply more groups, more players. Students didn’t know Ramadan any better in 1965, but now there are as many Muslims as Jews in America. It’s more important to know who’s who.”
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