This post is an excerpt from “Religious Illiteracy—A Silent Ignorance and a Possible Cure”, an essay that won a first place award for argument in the 2012-2013 100s Essay Contest.
If you were to ask one hundred Americans about the top three problems our nation is facing, you would hear a lot about politics – crooked politicians, a tanking economy, and conniving corporate lobbyists. There would also be no shortage of talk about the Middle East – Israel, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan, Iran, all the places you hear about on the news. There would be a few who name issues such as abortion, gay marriage, education, or intolerance as among the most important issues our nation is currently facing. The term “literacy” probably would not come up. The term “religious literacy”? Not a chance.
In fact, many may not even know what “religious literacy” means. It certainly is not a term that comes up in everyday life; I had never heard of it before I began researching the alarming effects a lack of religious literacy can have. In Religious Literacy: What Every American Should Know – and Doesn’t, a widely discussed book by Stephen Prothero, the chair of the religion department at Boston University, religious literacy is defined as “the ability to understand and use the religious terms, symbols, images, beliefs, practices, scriptures, heroes, themes, and stories that are employed in American public life” (13). This is a very expansive definition, and, as the book’s title suggests, it describes a knowledge that many Americans do not possess.
A recent study performed by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life measured Americans’ knowledge of their own belief systems and the belief systems of others by administering a religious knowledge survey. The survey asked questions such as, “What is the first book of the Bible?” and, “When was the Mormon religion founded?” (“Religious Knowledge”).
The results are cringe-worthy at best, mortifying at worst. There were 32 religion-related questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics performed the best, answering an average of 20.9 questions correctly. Jews and Mormons were close behind, scoring a 20.5 and 20.3 respectively, while Protestants as a whole got a mere 16 questions correct and Catholics only 14.7 (“Religious Knowledge”).
It is clear that Americans of many religious affiliations could be classified as “religiously illiterate.” Protestants and Catholics especially seem to be uninformed about the basic tenets of their faiths and the faiths of others, an alarming idea considering that 75.2% of Americans identify themselves as one of these two religions (“Religious Landscape”). When it comes to religion, America is an illiterate nation, a fact that seems out-of-place in a society that purportedly stresses knowledge and critical thinking.
Nonetheless, with so many other important problems in the national spotlight, why spend any time worrying about religious illiteracy? Many certainly would feel that the aforementioned issues – politics, tension in the Middle East, abortion, gay marriage, education reform, and intolerance – should take precedent over something as inconsequential as Americans’ lack of knowledge of the fundamental principles of Islam. However, is religious literacy really as isolated an issue as we would initially assume it to be?
I believe the answer is no; an undeniable quality of any belief system is its permeation into other parts of the life of whomever subscribes to it. For example, how many Americans this past year voted against Mitt Romney because of his Mormonism yet had no idea what Mormonism entails? How many have commented on the violence in the Middle East without having any knowledge of the religious conflicts and religion-fueled hatred of the West that cause this violence? How many have voted against abortion and gay marriage because they believe that is what the Bible teaches yet cannot even identify the first book of the Bible? How many have fought for the teaching of creationism in schools yet cannot accurately relay the Biblical account of creation? How many have called for religious tolerance while not taking the time to learn about the religions they want people to tolerate?
As these examples illustrate, religious illiteracy may be more insidious than we realize, a silent ignorance underlying countless other national problems. America has spiraled into a culture of religious ignorance, an ignorance that it nurses instead of purges. This trend of anti-intellectualism regarding religion has led to widespread judgmental attitudes and offensive political rhetoric. We are half-heartedly “tolerant” toward religions that are not our own, yet beneath the surface swirl vague feelings of indignation and distrust.
Tatum Hunter is a first-year student from Lebanon, Ohio, just up the road. She has a thing for cats, a great singing voice, and a wicked sense of humor. She is delighted to be living in Fenwick next year and is looking forward to serving as a staff writer for the Newswire. She is getting all she can from the famed Xavier experience.