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. Part one in this three part series can be found here.
If this trend of religious ignorance could be reversed, even on a small scale, it would greatly benefit our country as a whole. After all, a “national sentiment” is nothing more than a vast collection of individual sentiments. If people of my generation, known as Generation Y, could make a conscious effort to be more knowledgeable about their own religions and the religions of others, it would eventually lead to a more informed nation.
However, the uninformed state of our nation is a problem that is deeply rooted and has no easy solution. In fact, this trend of religious illiteracy may easily be a symptom of a much wider anti-intellectualism in America. An article by Susan Jacoby in the Washington Post, written in response to Stephen Prothero’s previously-mentioned book on religious literacy and its alarming decline, points to the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening as the beginning of the end of religious literacy in America, writing, “The fervor of America’s periodic cycles of revivalism, rooted in a personal relationship with God rather than in theology handed down by learned clergy, has always had a strong anti-intellectual as well as spiritual component.”
Unfortunately, this anti-intellectualism has snowballed in recent years. Jacoby acknowledges this in her article and asserts that both a cultural emphasis on “bland tolerance” and our newly developed “video culture” are to blame for our utter lack of both religious literacy and a more expansive cultural literacy. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof also addresses this sad fact in an editorial written for the New York Times in 2008. He jokingly laments the cold, hard facts of anti-intellectualism: “Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does understand that the sun orbits the Earth…oh, oops.” He also references Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason, supporting her view that America is plagued by an aversion to reason and knowledge fueled by our technology-flooded culture and the pervasiveness of fundamentalist religion in our country.
Despite this imposing wall of anti-intellectualism, scholars have proposed a potential solution to the daunting problem of religious illiteracy – religious education in American high schools. Stephen Prothero advocates this idea in his book. By pointing out the danger of Americans’ ignorance regarding religious facts and references (1) and citing worrisome findings regarding religious illiteracy (31), Prothero attempts to show his readers that the problem of religious ignorance is a pressing one that requires an immediate and implementable solution. He goes on to argue that the solution to the problem is the presence of religious education classes in public school, writing, “The via media here is the ‘civic public school,’ which fosters objective teaching about religion while avoiding either denigrating or promoting it” (130).
Prothero is not the only scholar who advocates this idea, however, as Diane L. Moore also promotes it in her book Overcoming Religious Illiteracy: A Cultural Studies Approach to the Study of Religion in Secondary Education. As the director of the program in Religion and Secondary Education at Harvard Divinity school, Moore uses her expertise to show readers that she understands the problem at hand and presents a series of simple examples of the different educational strategies that could be used to remedy it so that all readers can feel like they understand the solution she is proposing (68-78). She champions a “cultural studies” method of teaching religion in public schools, a method that would both recognize the context of religious claims and teach an interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of religion in hopes of teaching students that religion is “fundamentally intertwined” with all other disciplines (79).
As Randle H. Lewis points out in a scholarly article reviewing Prothero and Moore’s books, both authors operate on the assumptions that what they are proposing is constitutionally permissible and that readers will support the proposed initiative in the desire for an “informed citizenry” (555).
While their first assumption appears to be correct, their second is more dubious. Lewis, a religion teacher himself, paints Prothero and Moore’s proposal as unreasonable, arguing, “Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, the practice and understanding of that religion is a personal reality that cannot be objectified in the same way as mathematics. Nor can one ignore the exclusive claims of religion for the sake of tolerance and equality” (556).
Religion teachers would probably not be the only ones to hold this view; parents of all religions would be opposed to the objectifying of their religion and the watering-down of its claims. As Susan Jacoby notes in her aforementioned article “Blind Faith,” “A curriculum that would meet with the approval of Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and nonreligious parents would probably be a worthless set of platitudes….it is doubtful that schools can accomplish what parents and congregations cannot or will not.” Many teachers would shy away from the risk of angering parents or even getting sued, thus making the idea of religious classes in public high schools impractical, if not impossible, to implement.
After doing some research and seeing this impracticality, I began to wonder if there may be a better, more implementable solution to the problem of religious illiteracy: religious classes offered through community centers, easily accessible pamphlets or brochures containing information on world religions, or even a media campaign encouraging young people to learn about world religions. I decided to go to my peers at Xavier University and ask them what type of measure would spur them on to learn more about world religions, but first I had to find out if my friends at Xavier are just as religiously illiterate as Americans as a whole. I borrowed a large chunk of the Pew Forum’s Religious Knowledge Survey, added a few questions of my own, and administered the 72-part questionnaire to eight Xavier students, four men and four women, living with me in Buenger Residence Hall.
While admittedly my sample consisted of eight white Honors students who elected to attend a socially conscious, Catholic university, the results were still intriguing. While every student except one answered over half of the religiously based questions correctly, all except two struggled with the questions that addressed any religion outside of Protestantism and Catholicism. When I took the survey myself before looking up the answers, all the questions I answered incorrectly were also about religions outside of Protestantism and Catholicism. Thus, while this group of Xavier students seems very informed about Protestantism and Catholicism, our knowledge of other world religions may leave something to be desired.
When asked what type of religious literacy initiative would encourage them to take action and learn more, the students’ answers varied. Both the highest and the lowest scorer opted for easily accessible brochures. While three students responded that they would be most likely to take interest in some sort of religious class, two of the three specified that they would prefer these classes to be taught through their school or church. (As we have seen, this is an impractical idea if we want to provide people with religious knowledge that is as objective as possible.) One student responded that there is no measure that could inspire him to learn more about religions. The remaining two students indicated that a media campaign designed to increase knowledge of world religions would engage them the most.
In addition to input from people of my generation, I also desired input from academic and religious leaders who encounter religious illiteracy in their everyday lives. I went first to Dr. Jan Gallagher, a theology professor at Xavier who teaches a World Religions class. During our interview, she defined a religiously illiterate person as one who “will not recognize truth, worth, or good” in the religions of others. She reaffirmed that religious illiteracy is seen most often among Catholics and Protestants and stressed that Americans desperately need to build their understanding of Judaism and Islam especially (as these religions share common roots with Christianity) (Interview).
She then went on to say something very interesting – closed-mindedness and indoctrination are caused by human beings trying to interpret scripture that was “written at a certain time for a certain audience.” Religious teachers in America have not set out trying to make their listeners closed-minded, but their zeal and fervor have caused them to do so nonetheless. Fear of the unknown and a desire for control is what drives both teacher and listener, because that is what humans desire – concrete answers, “something they can wrap their hands around,” and they find it in misinterpreted scripture (Interview).
When asked if she believes if there is a cultural element to the religious illiteracy of Americans, she answered swiftly and decidedly: American exceptionalism. Americans have a history of thinking they are entitled to be right, and the area of religion is no different. In the minds of many Americans, there is no reason to become informed about the religions of others because these religions are, to put it simply, wrong (Interview).
Leaving my interview with Dr. Gallagher, I could not stop thinking about the social and emotional elements of religious illiteracy. We are conditioned by our culture to assume that what we think is true is automatically correct. How then can we be surprised when Americans seemingly have no desire to learn about the faiths of others or study the reasoning behind their own faiths?
With this in mind, I decided I should not be content having only the opinion of an academic but should also consult a religious leader. I called the leader of my family’s Protestant church, Pastor Mark Cary, and asked for his viewpoint on the religious illiteracy he encounters. He echoed Dr. Gallagher’s observation that Americans are not comfortable with hearing different viewpoints, but felt that this was caused not by church leaders but by a cultural “push for negativity in the name of critical thinking.” He made the insightful point that if we become too busy critiquing the thoughts and views of religious people, we sabotage the mutual respect and tolerance that could have existed. He called for an end to Christians vainly attempting to “legislate morality” and a shift toward “literacy through personal influence” (Interview).
While Dr. Gallagher and Pastor Cary made very different arguments in regards to religious illiteracy, I believe their underlying idea was the same: in order to reverse the trend and make my generation one that prides itself on its religious literacy, there would have to be a change, not an academic one, but a widespread social, emotional, cultural, and mental change. This begs the question: does there exist a medium through which this kind of change can be achieved effectively and efficiently? It does not take long to think of the obvious answer: the media.
Tatum Hunter is a member of the class of 2016 at Xavier. She in on Ecumenical Ministry Team in the CFJ and supports our efforts at worship with her musical talent. This summer she will head to the Czech Republic on a mission trip. She continues to share her love of writing by blogging, working as a staff writer for the Newswire and interning at the Cincinnati Business Courier.