Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t, by Stephen Prothero (HarperOne, 2008).
Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, surveys the decline in religious literacy through four centuries of American life. The Puritans knew their Bibles and their catechism, but people today know little either about scripture or specific religious doctrines, even in the religions they profess. Prothero lays the blame largely on two culprits: growing religious pluralism in America that forced believers to put morality over theology; and the emotionalism of 19th century revivals that exalted the heart over the head, feeling over knowing. Bit by bit religious knowledge disappeared from our schools and our mental landscape. For a remedy, Prothero prescribes two required courses for all public school students, one in the Bible and one in world religions. The book ends with a long A to Z glossary of religious knowledge, covering all seven of the major world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. (Including interesting juxtapositions: New Testament followed by Nirvana, for example.)
The bottom line, I think, is that religious liberty killed religious literacy in America — which is ironic. But with so many competing creeds, the importance of doctrines themselves grew less and less. Reading this book reminded me that although I know something about Christianity, Judaism and Islam, beyond that my religious knowledge drops off sharply. I could stand to learn more about Eastern religions. Buddhism seems especially intriguing since Buddhist detachment from the world resembles themes I have encountered in the Desert Fathers and Mothers of early Christianity.