– A review of the new book by Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, Harper Collins, 2007, $24.95

Stephen Prothero should be hailed as the great “setter-righter” where it concerns truly how religious Americans are or aren’t. It is true, of course, that Americans are generally the more religious of the current great western nations, but the assumption that Americans know much about their religions or even how to BE religious is one that Prothero dispels quite well. He shows us that our actual knowledge of what our own religions really are, what they mean, what their history is and how they differ one from the other is being lost with time. He successfully proves that America is a religious country with little religious knowledge and that our claims at being religious ring a bit hollow.

The best thing about Prothero’s revelation is that he chronicles that our loss of religious knowledge didn’t just happen with the beginning of the counterculture in the 1960’s, but that it began to happen well before the Civil War in the 1800’s. According to Prothero, it is a result of our own democratic propensities, but regardless of why it has happened, we must take steps to stop it.

The history that Prothero brings us is illuminative and important for every American to understand.

The history of American religiosity (or irreligiousness as the case may be), though, isn’t the only subject of this fine book. The last section deals with how we can rectify the slow drift into religious amnesia by bringing a sensible study of religion back into our schools. Prothero rightfully points out that neither the Constitution nor the Supreme Court has outlawed the teaching of religion in our schools, but only the proselytizing of it. He also rightfully reminds us that our literature, our politics and our history is so closely tied with Christianity that to excise that one aspect of our history gives short shrift to the education we are giving our children and makes of them students unable to truly understand our own society.

Because of the extremists of the “separation of church and state” crowd, we have made our history undecipherable to too many. Prothero is correct in that we must reintroduce the religious aspect o our own history into the classroom to produce well rounded and informed students. He is also right that teaching about religion does not equate to promulgating particular religious tenets but only sets western history in context.

Lastly, this book has a handy, if not somewhat simplified, dictionary of important religious terms and concepts. Prothero hopes that the reader will benefit from some of these terms and bring their own religious literacy up a few notches by reading them. It’ll be a good bet that many will be unfamiliar with some of these terms and concepts, especially since he does not dwell solely on Christian terms and words but includes Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim entries. This glossary is useful for general information, of course, but does not materially advance his arguments. Still, it is a fine addition to the book.

This book is a must read for people wanting to know what happened to religion in America and how to redress the past errors in consideration of religion as well as how to get it back into our schools where it belongs, a goal that has important consequences for every citizen.

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