What You Don’t Know (according to Stephen Prothero)

I’ve slowly been working my way through two Stephen Prothero books this fall: God is Not One: the Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t. While I’m using the first as a resource and referring to chapters when they complement my teaching, the latter I read straight through. Upon reading the introduction, I felt a sense of satisfaction (the feeling you feel when someone incredibly smart agrees with your point of view). Parts of Prothero’s introduction read like a much better written version of my course syllabus. As he argues for the promotion of religious literacy, he states:

…I write here not as a believer (or unbeliever) but as a citizen. My purpose is not to foster faith or to denigrate it. Neither is it to advance the liberal arts or to boost high school students’ SAT scores (though these are both laudable educational ends to which religious literacy might be put). My goal is to help citizens participate fully in social, political, and economic life in a nation and a world which religion counts. (p. 15).

Yes!!! Like Prothero, I encounter huge gaps in my students’ religious knowledge, both in my elective course and as I try to wade through the American history curriculum. And, like Prothero, I strongly believe that increasing religious literacy is critical to building better citizens (and just better people). But while we agree on the problem facing America today, and I appreciated his scholarship on why exactly religious literacy has declined,  I do differ with Prothero when it comes to the solutions he suggests.

Prothero argues that two courses should be added to both high school and collegiate course loads: a Bible 101 and World Religions 101. He justifies a course in Biblical studies because of the many cultural references to stories from the text; from great works of literature to politician’s speeches. He envisions a course that teaches the Bible as literature but also as a historical force, looking at the influence it has had on world affairs, and that familiarizes students with the major differences between versions of the Bible.

While he addresses the potential criticisms that this might recieve from the left and the right, he does not consider some of the practical implications. There are budget constraints and time factors that limit the number of courses a school can offer. Devoting an entire course to a text that most Americans are currently unfamiliar with seems like a waste of resources. Prothero spends a vast section of book explaining the forces that have led to a decline in religious literacy, primarily focusing on Americans’ understanding of the Christian Bible. For example, he notes that a drive towards social reforms pushed Protestant denominations to downplay their differences in the interests of promoting their social cause. If these denominations have not been emphasizing these doctrinal ideas, is it perhaps because other ideas, like active engagement in social causes are seemingly more relevant? Along those lines, why not promote a course in religious studies where ideas like religion and its connections to reform are emphasized over the church doctrine and Biblical stories? If churches themselves have moved on to different, more pressing issues, why shouldn’t we spend more time evaluation those and less time worrying about what separates Lutherans and Methodists.

If the concern is that some cultural heritage is lost, devoting an entire course  to Bible 101 makes more sense at a liberal arts college, in much the same way that entire courses are devoted to Shakespeare’s canon or “great works.” There students have the room in their curriculum as well as adequate preparation to tackle the writing.  I question the effectiveness of assigning the Bible to high school students. A quick search suggests that most editions of the Bible are published at an 11th or 12th grade reading-level. The sad truth is that these texts are too challenging for many students in our public schools, particularly our English-Language-Learner populations. I’m not sure of the success of focusing an entire course on a text that is out of reach for many of our students.

A World Religions 101 course seems both more meaningful and more practical at the high-school level. Prothero promotes a course based on the seven great religious traditions but with reflections of local characteristics and geographic features (incorporating Santeria when teaching in Miami, for example). He notes that these courses should review the history but also reflect the present status and concerns of these religions. Here is where I whole-heartedly agree. Promoting familiarity with these religions will better equip students to understand the news and the changing world around him.

Prothero ends his book with a dictionary of religious literacy, where he lists and defines terms that “Americans Need to Know.”  I agree with much of his list, although I fear the emphasis on terminology. This is a fine line to walk. As he notes early in his book, facts and vocabulary are essential to developing an understanding of any content–he describes the need for “a shared vocabulary in each [religious tradition], a basic religious literacy.” I have grown to recognize the importance of spending time on vocabulary while trying to take aim at broader religious issues in my course.  However, I would also like to see World Religions courses adopt an emphasis on concepts that can be applied as the places and times of international issues evolve. Ideas like orthodoxy, extremism, millenialism, and fundamentalism make their appearances across religious traditions and in a variety of geographic locations, and teachers should equip their students to identify these ideas in each. The variety of voices within religious traditions should also be recognized and heard, and it’s important, I think, for students to see that this range occurs in religions both familiar and strange. There are feminist Buddhists and extremist Amish. Rely too much on a list of terms and on a single text, and we risk teaching to a world that has passed by instead of preparing students for the world as it evolves.

In sum, Prothero’s book was engaging and his argument successful. He illustrates both the need for an emphasis on religious studies and is able to trace the rise and fall of our nation’s own religious literacy. His historical review will certainly have an impact on my American history teaching this year. It is in his suggested steps to remedy the problem that I think he becomes a bit too nostalgic for times gone by and less focused on the practical needs of today’s high school students, and today’s American citizens.

What do you think? Should the Bible be taught to high-school students? 



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