Saturday, September 17, 2011

Stephen Prothero's "Religious Literacy": Book Review

This combines three sections. First, our present-day American illiteracy about religion, in the most "religious" nation on earth, receives Professor Prothero's survey. Next, he looks at how much the Puritans knew and taught and reinforced, and then how colonial and evangelical and non-denominational movements contended in bringing content into schools, public life, and instructional books for young and old. Finally, he proposes bringing back religious instruction into secondary schools (and on a wider basis in colleges) not on a normative basis or a reductive "all religions are the same" approach, but one that respects objective analysis.

As he teaches at Boston University, a prestigious institution, I was intrigued to learn how little his students knew, and why the standards for religious knowledge among a population that often claims fervently to read the Bible regularly and to attend services, have fallen the past century. He distinguishes well fundamentalism (the word of God is literal and unalterable) from evangelicalism (the word is inspired but modernity is not a bad term); he reminds us of how the 19th century debates over how Christianity had to be taught in public schools as Protestants reasoned a more inclusive approach tangled with Catholic immigrants, who eventually wound up creating parochial schools and separating themselves from the mainstream for basically a century, until Vatican II eroded what made Catholic culture so distinctive. 

However, much of his book does not take on literacy now so much as back then, and it reads like a textbook for long stretches; his research into how Jesus became "Americanized" appears to be repeated in this newer volume. Also, for an historian of American religious culture, he appears to not have understood the claims of Stephen Batchelor's "Buddhism without Beliefs" which he castigates for abandoning tradition to pursue happiness. I've reviewed this book, and it presents a sober, existentialist, "agnostic" approach to Buddhism for a practitioner who cannot believe, which is not a touchy-feely take on dharma at all. Prothero cites his "Boomer Buddhism" critique from "Salon" in early 2001; this article shows a similar disdain for James William Coleman's "The New Buddhism" (also reviewed by me), which examines from a sociological perspective the "convert" reaction to Buddhism; this rankles Prothero, who appears to expect that if a religious (and moreover monastically dominated) import to America does not remain pure, as it were, that's it's tainted, tawdry, and terrible. 

That apparent display of too-hasty a scholarly claim aside, the strengths of this book are in showing how the affective response to Christianity that permeates so many Americans weakens our political and practical competency to understand the diverse cultures around us, as well as the international tensions resulting from misinformation or ignorance about other faiths, let alone the most common one in America. He does cover Hinduism and Islam and Judaism in American life, too, if much more in passing, as Protestantism overwhelmingly remains the key subject of discussion. 

His suggested reading list is very short, and oddly chosen, to find out about some of these other faiths, however; you may learn enough, if a newcomer, from the key information that he compiles into an eighty-page glossary in the spirit of E.D. Hirsch's "Cultural Literacy" if not its scope. Finally, take the Religious Literacy Quiz and see how you do; it's fun to see how Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant tallies of even the Ten Commandments don't break them down the same way--a testament to diversity! (Amazon US 8-31-11)

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