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 Post subject: US A Nation of Faith Filled With Religious Illiterates
PostPosted: Tue Jan 18, 2005 6:14 pm 
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U.S. a nation of faith filled with religious illiterates


By STEPHEN PROTHERO, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Published: Sunday, Jan. 16, 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 was able to name the most basic of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12 percent thought 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 . . . 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 First 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 Quran (or both) might not be a bad place to start.


Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and is the author of “American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon” (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003).

Link: http://www.nashuatelegraph.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?

Catherine

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 11:47 am 
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Excellent piece.

This particularly spoke to me:
Quote:
teachers not trained in the subtle distinction between teaching religion (unconstitutional) and teaching about religion (essential).

It IS essential to teach comparative religion. We have now, a nation that oozes hypocrisy because the only religion people hear comes from a place that makes it's living 'teaching' that religion. Their income depends on keeping that religion the primary one.

Great way to set up battles between religions themselves plus people who do not believe in a god.

Comparative religion would allow people to see what the teachings of their own religion are as well as the teachings of the religions of others. There are so many ways religions agree with one another--including many that believe theirs is the one and only true religion.

If we spent half the time reaching out to others and actually caring about others that we do fighting about religion, we would be a fantastic people!


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 12:49 pm 
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dori,
I could not agree with you more. When I was in college I took a class that you would have loved , it was a history of religion course. The professor I had, Prof. Stillman, was a religious Jew who did not allow his beliefs in Judiasm interfere with the teachings of this class. I still remember some of the things I learned in that classs (I've been out of college for 16 years).
He stressed about how with all of the major religions the Bible was written by man, and there has to be room for interpretation. For instance in the old Testament where it says God created earth in 6 days, it might have been interpreted as 6 days, but was it really a day, a day could have meant a year or two or a hundred years.
The great thing about this class was how we learned about SIMILAR all of the religions were and the connection between different religions. Try to bring up to some Christians that Jesus was a Jew, and you can almost see their heads spin. I have discovered that most Christians don't like to be reminded that Jesus was a Jew. We learned about how in Christians, Jews and Muslims all believe in in one God (remember Jesus is the "son" of God). I wish remembered more from this class( I think my mom might still have my books from this class in her house). More people should have exposure to other religions.
-Eva


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 04, 2005 7:17 pm 
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Absolutely, Eva. If we just believed in the good in other people, we could possibly make people more important than 'being right'! Classes in comparative religion would go a long way to bringing more tolerance to our people.

Hard to believe that there are so many people who are dead against tolerance. Go figure.....

I have always found that bit about god creating the earth in six days interesting. That was thought up back when it was believed the sun traveled around the earth and that took one day. So what is one day actually? God is supposedly floating around somewhere above us, does he have a 24 hour day? Or a thousand year day? Or a billion year day? How are we supposed to know?

Since the earth travels around the sun, and it takes a year to do that, does that mean day one was actually 365 billion 'days'?

We have no reference point. How can we say something happened in 24 hours when we have no reference point to what time is to god?

And that is just the beginning of Genesis. There are an awful lot of books, passages, lines, references, what have you to go through and they are all as mixed as this is. That is why people have to have faith, but it is also a good idea to know what you have faith in. The unerring certainty of our being able to understand what these religious writings mean isn't such a great idea.

Leave some room for the possibility others may have some 'truths' also.


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