Dumbed Down: What Americans Don't Know about Religion

Article excerpt

Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't. By Stephen Prothero. HarperSanFrancisco, 304 pp., $24.95.

Democracy and the New Religious Pluralism. Edited by Thomas Banchoff. Oxford University Press, 352 pp., $24.95.

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, my job got a lot easier. I had been toiling for 15 years to establish a department of religious studies at my university. Its strongly secular faculty, sensitive to political winds in a southern, conservative state, feared that such a program would inevitably be dominated by evangelical Christians. State legislators, suspicious as always of college professors, feared that religious studies in a university set ting would mean state-sponsored attacks on Christian belief. The university president had nightmares about headlines in the local paper. Besides, the university had more pressing needs. Religious studies seemed either a luxury or a potential headache--something the university couldn't afford or didn't need.

Until September 11, that is. The dialogue about religious literacy changed that day. It was not merely that my arguments extolling the importance of students understanding world religions no longer fell on deaf ears; the arguments began to be made by others. The university president mentioned our efforts in religious studies in his standard stump speech to state legislators. The press began to call the university in search of expert opinions on religious sects and practices. Our Islam scholar began to appear on CNN. A major donor decided to endow a faculty chair--not in Christianity but in world religions. By 2005, the university not only had created an undergraduate department of religious studies; it had added a master's program as well.

In a world shaped not merely by 9/11 but by conflict in Iraq, Bosnia, Kashmir and the West Bank--not merely by abortion but by gay marriage, intelligent design, euthanasia and stem cells--Americans increasingly accept the idea that we need to understand religion better. What we haven't quite figured out is where and how this should happen.

Two important new books target the challenges posed by the so-called new religious pluralism, exploring ways in which religious diversity is shaping public life. Stephen Prothero makes a case for teaching about religion in public schools. Thomas Banchoff offers 15 essays by leading scholars that examine the complex contours of religion in the public setting. Both books suggest that Americans have not paid enough attention to how religious diversity has altered the dynamics of public life and the demands of citizenship.

According to Prothero, professor of religious studies at Boston University, America has become a nation that is at once "deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion." Personal belief in God remains high, and Americans assert that their convictions shape their public behaviors and positions. A majority of Americans support the idea of religious organizations participating in public policy issues, and 90 percent of the members of Congress report that they consult their religious beliefs when voting on legislation. On many levels ours is still a very Christian nation. (Statistically the nation is "more Christian," Prothero points out, "than Israel is Jewish or Utah is Mormon.")

Yet surveys show that the majority of Americans cannot name even one of the four Gospels, only one-third know that it was Jesus who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. (Hey, at least they know that Noah was associated with an ark--or is that Arc?)

Some of the details reported by Prothero are funny in a perverse sort of way ("many high school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife"). Others are eye-opening. Prothero makes a convincing ease for the claim that devout Christians are, on average, at least as ignorant about the facts of Christianity as are other Americans. …