Religiously Illiterate: Prothero discusses Americans’ knowledge

JOSHUA BOUCHER | Staff Photographer
Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, discusses religious literacy, and how the differences between religions are important, at his Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Tuesday.

Roughly 50 percent of Americans don’t know the Quran is the holy book of Islam.

Such is a finding by Stephen Prothero, indicative of the level of religious literacy in America and the focus of his Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

“The United States is one of the most religious countries on earth,” said Prothero, professor of religion at Boston University. “Yet Americans know almost nothing about religion. They know very little about their own religions, and they know next to nothing about the religions of the world.”

Prothero first became aware of this problem when he taught courses in religion at BU. When he lectured there, he found his students sported what he referred to as “the look,” the blank face one shows when they understand nothing of what he or she is hearing. His students displayed “the look” when he went over what he thought to be elementary components of world religions.

After administering a basic association test to his students — connecting biblical characters to their respective stories — to his dismay, 89 percent of them failed.

Expanding the inquiry, Prothero decided to check with his own family. After asking his daughter who she could name from the Bible, even she could name only Jesus and “Tom.”

He then extrapolated the test to the American public to determine its religious literacy. The results were abysmal, bordering on hilarious, he said. Prothero found that a majority of Americans cannot name any of the four Gospels, 10 percent of Americans thought that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, and a sizable minority thought Sodom and Gomorrah were a happily married couple.

The test was comprised of 32 questions. The average score on the test was roughly 50 percent.

“Why does this matter?” Prothero said. “It matters because religion matters. It obviously matters to many of you here, and it matters to billions of people worldwide.”

Even to those who don’t identify with any religion, Prothero still argued that a basic understanding of world religions is key to navigating a multifaith world.

“Religion may or may not make sense to you, but you cannot make sense of the world without making sense of religion,” Prothero said.

Prothero pointed to American intervention in the Middle East. Despite the lengthy amount of time that American troops have been serving in the area, Americans still are oblivious of the differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and the importance of those differences in the region.

“If you want to understand what is happening with Israelis and Palestinians, it does not help to be told that Judaism and Christianity are essentially the same,” Prothero said.

As important as understanding a religion, Prothero argued, is appreciating and respecting the sovereignty of each and not succumbing to the idea that all religions are different paths to the same destination.

“It just isn’t true that the beliefs and practices of the religions are the same,” Prothero said. “It’s not only untrue but it’s also condescending. It’s condescending because it requires you to tell ordinary practitioners that their beliefs or practices — beliefs and practices they consider to be essential, are somehow marginal and unimportant.“

In the end, Prothero’s lecture boiled down to a societal need to reach a better level of understanding of both one’s own religion as well as the other major faiths in the world. To complement this understanding must also come a respect to each religion’s own uniqueness and independence.

“What we need today is not pretend pluralism,” Prothero said. “What we need is a clear outlook at the realities of the religions as they are: beautiful and ugly, similar and different.”