Religious Ignorance

A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece by Stephen Prothero on the religious ignorance of Americans; he did a nice job addressing how some liberal Americans are quick to anger when the Christian right states that homosexuality is wrong, but do not know why they hold such views. Moreover, some who are a part of the Christian right are quick to claim all Muslims are evil, but have not read the Qu’ran . I have stated this before: All students should be required to take at least a year of required religious studies. This should be the case for both high school and college students. I am not asking for a doctrinal course on how to be Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Methodist, or Catholic; I am talking about a religious studies course. Even if a person has no faith in a “holy spirit,” part of being educated is being aware of various cultures, beliefs, and norms. Stephen Hawking is a physicist who has devoted much of his time to discovering and understanding black holes. His premise states that if black holes exist, God does not; yet, his religious IQ is not bad. How can he argue against God if he does not know what God has to say.
Here is a sample of Prothero’s article on religious ignorance. You can read the rest here; it is pretty good.

For the past two years, I have given students in my introductory religious-studies course at Boston University a religious-literacy quiz. I ask them to list the four Gospels, Roman Catholicism’s seven sacraments, and the Ten Commandments. I ask them to name the holy book of Islam. They do not fare well.

In their quizzes, they inform me that Ramadan is a Jewish holiday, that Revelation is one of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and that Paul led the Israelites on the Exodus out of Egypt. This year I had a Hindu student who couldn’t name one Hindu scripture, a Baptist student who didn’t know that “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is a Bible quote, and Catholic students unfamiliar with the golden rule. Over the past two years, only 17 percent of my students passed the quiz.

“Cultural literacy” has been hotly debated ever since E.D. Hirsch Jr.’s best seller of that name injected the desideratum into the culture wars in 1987. Today religious illiteracy is at least as pervasive as cultural illiteracy, and certainly more dangerous. Religious illiteracy is more dangerous because religion is the most volatile constituent of culture. Religion has been, in addition to one of the greatest forces for good in world history, one of the greatest forces for evil.

Nonetheless, Americans remain profoundly ignorant about their own religions and those of others. According to recent polls, most American adults cannot name even one of the four Gospels, and many high-school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A few years ago, no one in Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show audience could name any of the Twelve Apostles, but everyone was able to shout out the four Beatles.

One might imagine that religious illiteracy is nothing more than a religious problem — a challenge for ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams. But in the United States today, presidents quote from the Bible during their inauguration speeches, members of Congress cite the “Good Samaritan” story in debates over immigration legislation, and politicians of all stripes invoke the Book of Genesis in debates over the environment. So religious ignorance is a civic problem, too.

In an era when the public square is, rightly or wrongly, awash in religious rhetoric, can one really participate fully in public life without knowing something about Christianity and the world’s other major religions? Is it possible to decide whether intelligent design is “religious” or “scientific” without some knowledge of religion as well as science? Is it possible to determine whether the effort to yoke Christianity and “family values” makes sense without knowing what sort of “family man” Jesus was? Is it possible to adjudicate between President Bush’s description of Islam as a religion of peace and the conviction of many televangelists that Islam is a religion of war, without some basic information about Muhammad and the Quran?

Unfortunately, U.S. citizens today lack this basic religious literacy.


12 thoughts on “Religious Ignorance

  1. The world needs to learn how to compromise. That is tough when you talk religion. A little knowledge does not hurt. I like the article you linked.

  2. Should I feel special for knowing all of those questions?
    I find it funny that there have been many politicians who do not even know the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite.

    We have just become arrogant with in our own religions. No matter what religion it is, we believe it to be the best and therefore don’t question it enough to learn about it nor try to learn what others might think of it.
    Whether that be becaase of how many modern preachers preach, or because of conflict with other religions, it is obvious Americans’ (maybe others, i’ve no idea) arrogance has spread to religion as well.

  3. Arrogeing is the problem. We assum that all must believe and adopt a universal faith in order to be knowledgable ios untrue. It is about what I believe. I think universal faith is overrated much like seeing a shrink. we as humans put too much stock in ideas and when our ideas run out we create faith.

    I found that article and author to be arrogant.

  4. The author sees faith as part of a culture and a necessity for a modern society; you clearly do not.

    And in theory, isn’t religion ideas with conviction?

  5. Interesting comment Marshall. I am surprised to hear you say this. As a life long student, I value all ideas — even the ones I do not agree with. Do you like to read a lot? Discuss many things? It should be about you as long as you know and understand the next person’s view. Good luck with this brother.

  6. What are you guys teaching these students at religious achools?

    “many high-school seniors think that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife.”

    This is funny!

  7. His mention of intelligent design is an interesting topic. Religious people see it as a victory of compromise between the two, but I believe it to be a win for science. Why? They give littlt credit to the concept. It means that there might be a creator but we are noy saying it is a god. This is not a bad thing. It allows and promotes some discussion on the issue of faith and science. I am sure you have heard that faith starts where science ends, the inability to explain.

  8. Maybe I’m just too busy or lazy (I’ll say busy) to go read Hawking’s thoughts on this, but can you explain in 25 words or less why he says the existence of black holes would negate a belief in God?

  9. I am not an expert on this, but I believe I once read in one of his books that black holes are like maps of the universe. Once you travel to the depths of one, the foundation of our origin can be found via matter.

  10. Edward,

    “I have stated this before: All students should be required to take at least a year of required religious studies.”

    I agree. Studying the religious views of others (or lack thereof) really does help you to see where they’re coming from. And as a Christian, my study of other religions has certainly helped to deepen my faith.

    In regards to the science issue, don’t worry: most of us are only pretending.

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