[Mb-hair] Re: [Mb-civic] A Nation of Faith and Religious Illiterates

Barbara Siomos barbarasiomos38 at webtv.net
Thu Jan 13 10:45:51 PST 2005

Excellent article Michael.... Thank you for sending.

>Date: Wed, Jan 12, 2005, 1:28pm (EST-3) 
>From: Michael Butler
><michael at michaelbutler.com> 
>To: Civic <mb-civic at islandlists.com>, HAIR List >Subject: [Mb-civic] A
Nation of Faith and Religious

A Nation of Faith and Religious Illiterates By Stephen Prothero
  Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and is author of
"American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon" (Farrar,
Strauss and Giroux, 2003).
  January 12, 2005
  The sociologist Peter Berger once remarked that if India is the
most religious country in the world and Sweden the least, then the
United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Not anymore. With
a Jesus lover in the Oval Office and a faith-based party in control of
both houses of Congress, the United States is undeniably a nation of
believers ruled by the same.
  Things are different in Europe, and not just in Sweden. The Dutch
are four times less likely than Americans to believe in miracles, hell
and biblical inerrancy. The euro does not trust in God. But here is the
paradox: Although Americans are far more religious than Europeans, they
know far less about religion. 

  In Europe, religious education is the rule from the elementary
grades on. So Austrians, Norwegians and the Irish can tell you about the
Seven Deadly Sins or the Five Pillars of Islam. But, according to a 1997
poll, only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the most basic
of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12% think Noah's wife was Joan
of Arc. That paints a picture of a nation that believes God speaks in
Scripture but that can't be bothered to read what he has to say. 

  U.S. Catholics, evangelicals and Jews have been lamenting for some
time a crisis of religious literacy in their ranks. But the dangers of
religious ignorance are by no means confined to those worried about
catechizing their children or cultivating the next generation of clergy. 

  When Americans debated slavery, almost exclusively on the basis of
the Bible, people of all races and classes could follow the debate. They
could make sense of its references to the runaway slave in the New
Testament book of Philemon and to the year of jubilee, when slaves could
be freed, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Today it is a rare
American who can engage with any sophistication in biblically inflected
arguments about gay marriage, abortion or stem cell research. 

  Since 9/11, President Bush has been telling us that "Islam is a
religion of peace," while evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy's son) has
insisted otherwise. Who is right? Americans have no way to tell because
they know virtually nothing about Islam. Such ignorance imperils our
public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads.
  How did this happen? How did one of the most religious countries
in the world become a nation of religious illiterates? Religious
congregations are surely at fault. Churches and synagogues that once
inculcated the "fourth R" are now telling the faithful stories "ripped
from the headlines" rather than teaching them the Ten Commandments or
parsing the Sermon on the Mount (which was delivered, as only one in
three Americans can tell you, by Jesus). But most of the fault lies in
our elementary and secondary schools.
  In a majority opinion in a 1963 church-state case (Abington vs.
Schempp), Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote, "It might well be said
that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative
religion Š and its relationship to the advance of civilization." If
so, the education of nearly every public school student in the nation is
woefully inadequate.
  Because of misunderstandings about the 1st Amendment, religious
studies are seldom taught in public schools. When they are, instruction
typically begins only in high school and with teachers not trained in
the subtle distinction between teaching religion (unconstitutional) and
teaching about religion (essential).
  Though state educational standards no longer ignore religion as
they did a decade or so ago, coverage of religion in history and social
science textbooks is spotty at best. According to Charles Haynes, senior
scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., "It is as if we
got freedom of religion in 1791 and then we were free from religion
after that." 

  Now that the religious right has triumphed over the secular left,
every politician seems determined to get religion. They're all asking
"What Would Jesus Do?" ‹ about the war in Iraq, gay marriage, poverty
and Social Security. And though the ACLU may rage, it is not un-American
to bring religious reasoning into our public debates. In fact, that has
been happening ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and
swore to uphold the Constitution. What is un-American is to give those
debates over to televangelists of either the secular or the religious
variety, to absent ourselves from the discussion by ignorance. 

  A few days after 9/11, a turbaned Indian American man was shot and
killed in Arizona by a bigot who believed the man's dress marked him as
a Muslim. But what killed Balbir Singh Sodhi (who was not a Muslim but a
Sikh) was not so much bigotry as ignorance. The moral of his story is
not just that we need more tolerance. It is that Americans ‹ of both
the religious and the secular variety ‹ need to understand religion.
Resolving in 2005 to read for yourself either the Bible or the Koran (or
both) might not be a bad place to start.
If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at
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  Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times

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