“We cannot make sense of the world without making sense of religion,” Dr. Stephen Prothero said during his lecture Friday evening at Marshall University. Dr. Prothero is a professor in the department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books on religion. His recent book, God is Not One (2010), was the subject of the evening’s lecture, brought to us by the Marshall University Honors College with their 3rd annual Da Vinci lecture. More information about Dr. Prothero is available on his website, which can be found here.
While I fundamentally disagree with the many of the points raised by Dr. Prothero, his lecture was fantastic and I would encourage everyone to take advantage of any opportunity one may get to attend another such lecture. He is a very entertaining speaker who’s ideas are very thoughtful and thought-provoking which, if you are at all familiar with us here at Meanwhile in West Virginia, is what we are all about.
Dr. Prothero spoke about the issue of religious literacy, the subject of his book Religious Literacy, and “the eight rival religions” which is the subject of his book, God is Not One. Of the two issues, the matter of religious literacy is the one that rang the true to me. “Are you really educated if you don’t know the difference between a Sunni Islam and Shia Islam?” he asked.
Dr. Prothero advocated for mandatory religious education at the public school level, beyond the 2 weeks dedicated to it during World History classes. He pointed out that one area in which people in the United States are most ignorant, is the principle of Separation of Church and State. “Three quarters of the people surveyed in a Pew Forum study”, which he cited throughout his lecture, “incorrectly believed that religion cannot be taught in public schools.” It is against the law to exclusively preach or promote specific religions, but merely discussing and educating on the history of them is in no way against the law, something the Supreme Court has upheld time and again. He explained that in his classes at Boston University, he tests all of his students at the beginning of the course on basic religious history questions, such as “Who built the ark in the Bible?” “The average score on such tests,” he said, “is 50%.”
Which, if the reaction in the room is anything to go on, was surprising to many people who attended the lecture. This wasn’t that surprising to me, however to actually have my suspicions empirically confirmed was a bit saddening. As someone who enjoys learning about, discussing, and debating religion, I know very well how illiterate the majority of people are about the history of their own religion. Dr. Prothero discussed that, as one of the world’s most religious countries, we are the most ignorant country insofar as the history of those religions.
Which, when you think about it, is frightening.
Turn on Fox News, at some point during the next half-hour period, I can promise you that you will hear at least one person citing their religious beliefs or their religious scripture as the basis of their stance on some issue. From abortion to taxes, from healthcare to capital punishment, people are making the most important decisions affecting the lives of the average US citizen based on their understanding of their religious beliefs. (I am not picking on Fox News or Republicans, because this is in no way exclusive to the right. I merely selected Fox News because the usually devote majority of their coverage to the elections.)
Six out of 535 people in Congress “Don’t Know/Refused” in answer to their religious beliefs. If Dr. Prothero’s classes are a standard which we can extrapolate out to the rest of America, the average score on a religious literacy test in Congress would be around 50%. These people publicly cite religious beliefs as their major measuring stick in their decision-making, and they probably couldn’t pass a test about the very essence of their religion.
That is terrifying.
Of course, how many of them actually do that instead of just saying they do that is a little iffy. Dr. Prothero noted that political strategists have learned that there is a great deal to be gained by citing religion, but almost nothing to lose. This is because the media and the American public simply does not know enough about religion to question these politicians when they say something of this nature.
Therein lies the problem. Regardless of your religious affiliation or beliefs, these people in the highest offices in the world are either lying to all of us because we do not know enough to question or refute them, or are making decisions based on a statistically questionable understanding of their religious beliefs.
The majority of Americans derive their religious faith from that of their parents. This is a fact. From the day we are born we are taken to our parent’s church, where we usually remain. From the day we learn to understand language we are placed in Sunday schools or other faith’s equivalents. We often do not have a choice in what religion we follow, we have been brought up in it during the most crucial stages of our development. (Often, teenagers and young adults will rebel against this at some point and leave the church, but statistically they will almost always return or attend a similar church elsewhere). There is nothing wrong with this, because within just about every religion, there are crucial moral and ethical lessons that then become ingrained in our nature.
However, the problem is that in this system, we breed out any questioning. We believe this and follow this because it has become our reality. Simple as that. There is no more desire to question or research origins, because we would be questioning our very reality. Which is a terrifying prospect to just about anyone, an uncomfortable situation to find ourselves in. So we don’t. And in doing so, we do not learn the facts and the history which leads to these beliefs. It is no longer important to us. This is the way things are because this is the way they are.
Decipher from that what you will, but consider it food for thought.
(I’ll be writing another post on the other half of his lecture dealing with this later.)