How It Used to Be


Paul L. Maier

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Jan 17, 2011

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume31, number5 (2008). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to:

The chair of the Religion Department at Boston University, Stephen Prothero, begins his shocking exposé of the religious ignorance of the American public with a poignant paradox, namely, that the United States of America, “one of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates” (p. 1). Anyone who watches NBC’s Tonight Show can easily affirm such a statement when Jay Leno interviews passers-by who are horrendously uninformed about culture and history in general, religion in particular.

The oft-quoted statistics make one cringe: only half of adults in the United States can name even one of the four Gospels, most don’t know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible, and many are hard-pressed to come up with even two or three of the Ten Commandments. Some assume that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, that Noah’s consort was Joan of Ark, and that Moses climbed Mount Cyanide. The public’s knowledge of the other world religious systems—Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other faiths—is, if possible, even less.

“So what?” the agnostic might argue, “Religion has outlived its relevance for today’s secular society.” That oft-repeated observation, however, is based on a totally false premise: that we’ve gone secular. The fact, Prothero demonstrates, is that the nations (with the exception of Western Europe) are becoming more, not less, religious than before, and that religion’s role in today’s world is as obvious as its violent intrusions on September 11 or its peaceful influence in American presidential elections. Ignoring the spiritual dimension in international relations in particular is pure folly, asserts the author. We still, however, dispatch ambassadors who may be woefully ignorant of the religions systems animating the foreign lands they visit, which results in gaffes and worse that only add to the image of the ugly American.

How It Used to Be

Prothero then moves into American history, demonstrating how crucially central the religious dimension was in times yore, a piety that extended from the New England Primer and the McGuffey readers to the religious foundation of our earliest colleges and the Great Awakenings. Older readers even today can note the contrast between the role religion played in our culture when they were young and the role it plays on the present scene.

How did we ever slip into such “religious amnesia,” as Prothero puts it? The roots, he says, are many. They range from John Dewey’s misdirected shunning of content-based education to current textbook authors and publishers who often scant anything religious for public schools because it would provoke heated controversy.

In one of his more surprising conclusions, however, the author also deposits blame directly at the doorstep of Christians themselves! The nineteenth-century “Bible Wars” concerning which Bible—Protestant or Catholic—was to be read in public schools led, after an onslaught of lawsuits, to its withdrawal from the classroom. It became virtually impossible to teach about religion in most public schools, and that nonsectarian approach quickly climbed the educational ladder to our colleges and universities, never minding that many were founded for Christian purposes.

The powerful climate change toward secularity in education also came to affect the churches. As Prothero tellingly writes, “Many trends transformed Christian congregations and voluntary associations into aiders and abetters of religious amnesia. The most important of these shifts were: from the intellect to the emotions, from doctrine to storytelling, from the Bible to Jesus, and from theology to morality…. knowledge was lost rather than gained” (105).

Is Prothero Reliable?

What of Stephen Prothero himself? He admits to having an Episcopalian background but to attending a Lutheran church at present (“irregularly,” he confesses). In any case, he does not flaunt either affiliation. He finds the 2003 election of openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire not only divisive—as it certainly is—but also an example of how both sides in the debate “have collapsed religion almost entirely into its moral dimension” (120), a matter of ethics rather than confession and theology. He might well be challenged on this point, since those opposing Robinson’s consecration certainly do so on the basis of scriptural theology. He also exhibits a strange aversion to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which “squeezed much of the content from Catholic religious education” (118).

Since Protestants have usually looked with favor on Vatican II and its protestantizing direction and relaxation of Roman Catholic “blue laws,” this opinion is surprising and begs further inquiry. Even the much-maligned fundamentalists come in for something of a rehabilitation in these pages—not because Prothero is one, but because they are concerned for the doctrinal and confessional content of their faith and, like him, have disdain for “religious amnesia.”

Is There a Cure?

One of the most attractive aspects of Prothero’s book is how he moves from trenchant criticism to positive suggestions for repair. He urges a multi-faceted effort in home, church, synagogue, and mosque to return to reading the basics, be they the Bible, the Qur’an, or other holy books. He was honest enough to admit shortcomings in the biblical education of his own daughters, which must have taken a bit of courage.

In an extraordinary effort to provide vocabulary for basic religious literacy in home, school, and church, Prothero even appends to his text an eighty-five-page glossary of religious words, phrases, and institutions. These range from “Abraham” to “Zionism,” and all are carefully chosen and nicely defined.

He also has other suggestions for reversing the precipitous fall into religious ignorance. The print and broadcast media, finally aware of the religion factor, can contribute by offering something besides bland entertainment. If they do venture into the religious sphere, he posits, they can contribute by striving to avoid the superficiality or sensationalist coverage that so often characterizes their religion specials.

The author concludes, however, that the prime remedy, his most provocative concept, is to teach about religions in our secondary schools, colleges, and universities: “This book argues for both the constitutionality and the necessity of teaching about religion in public schools and higher education….this civic purpose should be to produce citizens who know enough about Christianity and the world’s religions to participate meaningfully—on both the left and the right—in religiously inflected public debates. High school and college graduates who have not taken a single course about religion cannot be said to be truly educated” (17).

One easily concurs, and it is indeed teaching about religion objectively rather than teaching a religion per se—in any sectarian sense—that the United States Supreme Court has approved in important test cases. Prothero, however, bewails the fact that, according to a study in 2005, “only 8 percent of public high school students have access to an elective Bible course in their schools” (132). Although the way is open, many teachers and administrators are clearly loathe to take it. Doing so could evoke calls from the political left to avoid anything that smacks of religion in the classroom, as well as warnings from the political right not to treat “the Word of God” as just another literary text.

The Other World Religions

The author also avoids any Bible-centered bias in his search for a cure to religious illiteracy:

Of course, knowing about the Bible is not enough in a country [the United States] with over 1,200 mosques and more Hindu temples than any country outside India. So in addition to a required Bible course for every US public high school student, we need a mandatory course in the religions of the world….This course should cover the seven great religious traditions of the world—Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—but it should be tailored to local circumstances. (135–36)

Fair enough. Not only is this a cure for parochial religious illiteracy, but Christians, in particular, have nothing at all to fear from their sons’ and daughters’ exposure to Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, and Western religious competitors to Christianity. Conversions away from the church hardly will happen as a result of this. One of my seminars, “Christianity and the Competition,” easily demonstrates the almost-exponential superiority of our biblical sources in terms of credibility when compared with the holy books of other world religious systems.

A word of caution, however, is in order. On the university level (and probably on the secondary level), one can encounter the occasional professors in Departments of Religion who bend over so steeply in the name of objectivity that they not only scant, but ridicule Christianity in their courses. One such professor begins his lectures: “Let me tell you where I’m coming from, class: I’m half Druid and half Zen-Buddhist.” One can only speculate as to the direction of that course! I doubt if Prothero has sufficiently weighed this danger or indicated that no course in secondary or higher education would demand more care and objectivity in teaching than “World Religion 101.”

If courses like this, however, will help dispel the clouds of religious ignorance that hover over the masses today, then the risk is worth the effort. Thanks to Stephen Prothero for identifying this huge gap in our culture and for his creative suggestions for filling it. Every high school principal or university administrator in America ought to read this book.

—Paul L. Maier

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