Stephen Prothero wrote the book on American religious illiteracy — literally.
“We are one of the most religious nations on Earth, but Americans know very little about their own religions, and much less about the religions of others,” said Prothero, author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.
Prothero will discuss this lack of knowledge and its impact on both domestic and foreign affairs at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture is titled “Religious Literacy in a Christian (and Multireligious) Nation.”
In addition to Religious Literacy, Prothero is the author of American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America, and God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World — And Why Their Differences Matter, among others.
“Prothero is someone we have wanted to invite for a long time,” said Maureen Rovegno, associate director of religion. “He’s one of the significant voices for religious literacy.”
Prothero said that he became conscious of the average American’s lack of religious knowledge when he took his current job as a professor of religion at Boston University. There, he discovered that most of his students were unaware of what he considered to be basic religious terminology, such as the Five Pillars of Islam and the authors of the four New Testament Gospels.
This realization led Prothero to develop his “Religious Literacy Quiz,” which was published as part of Religious Literacy and includes questions like “Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism,” and “What are the seven Sacraments of Catholicism?”
Prothero said that he often distributes copies of the quiz at his lectures, and will likely do the same at Chautauqua.
Prothero said the lack of religious knowledge often revealed by the Religious Literacy Quiz has repercussions that reach beyond individual ignorance.
“Ironically, our lack of religious literacy is what keeps religion in our elections,” he said, citing the benefit politicians frequently see in invoking biblical texts and figures to legitimize their platforms.
Prothero said the general public’s lack of religious knowledge grants this legitimacy even if politicians’ references are incorrect.
“If we knew more as citizens and journalists, when politicians said silly things about religion, they would be challenged and embarrassed,” he said. “But because we don’t, it’s all benefit and no negative for politicians to talk about religion.”
Prothero said he thinks that this political free pass has a significant impact in American foreign relations as well.
“It has huge repercussions,” said Prothero, mentioning an incident in which a congressman incorrectly guessed that al-Qaida was a Shiite Muslim group, when, in fact, it staunchly opposes Shiite Muslims.
“How do you form a policy when you don’t know who your antagonists’ main antagonist is?” Prothero said. “For too long, much of our policy has been based on the false assumption that people are primarily motivated by economics and politics. They are, but they are also motivated by religion. We ignore that in our foreign policy at our peril.”
The end to this “religious foolishness in our politics,” said Prothero, will come from increased education and an increased willingness to discuss religion.
“We need more conversation about religion,” he said. “We need conversation about it that is both civil and informed, and unfortunately that’s a little bit wanting.”