Religious Illiteracy

Tom Shipka

In a recent book on the subject of religious literacy in America (1), Stephen Prothero, a historian of religion, argues that, paradoxically, "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion." (2) For instance, despite the fact that a huge majority of Americans are Christians, only half can name even one of the four Gospels (3), a majority cannot name the first book of the Bible (4), and only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (5) Americans are ignorant not only about Christianity but other religions as well. Only one-third of us can identify the founder of a religion other than Christianity and a vast majority of us are unfamiliar with the basic teachings of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. (6)

How did Americans become so religiously illiterate? Prothero traces religious amnesia in America to two sources in the 19th century. The first is the rise of evangelicalism in the Second Great Awakening which catapulted emotion over reason and actively discouraged religious learning. The second is the growth in non- denominationalism within Protestant America, partly as a defense against waves of Catholic immigrants, which resulted in a lowest common-denominator faith and the removal of the Bible from most public schools. (7) Thus, believers, not secularists, were responsible for the flight of religion from the classrooms. (8)

So how does Professor Prothero propose to overcome religious illiteracy in America? He calls for two required courses in American public high schools, one in the Bible and one in world religions. (9) According to Prothero, studying the Bible, arguably the most influential book ever written, will help students understand American history and literature while studying world religions will give students insight into religious diversity in America and help them to grasp developments and events across the world. Prothero points out that, contrary to public perception, teaching about religion has been consistently ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. (10)

Prothero acknowledges that his proposal faces obstacles. Teacher training will have to be revamped so that each school system has teachers qualified to teach courses in the Bible and world religions; funds will have to be found to support the new courses; and teachers, administrators, and parents will need to be educated about the distinction between teaching and preaching. Nevertheless, Prothero argues, we need to confront these problems head on because we need religiously literate citizens in today's world. (11)

I am convinced that Prothero's picture of religious illiteracy in America is accurate and that his proposal to overcome it is sensible and timely. (12) Whether it will be adopted across the nation is, of course, another question altogether. My sense is that the only hope for implementation of Prothero's plan is if President-Elect Barack Obama, who seeks to bridge the gulf between evangelicals and seculars, to defuse the culture wars, and to upgrade public education, makes Prothero's agenda his own. (13)


  1. Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn't, HarperCollins, 2007. References hereinafter are to this book. Prothero chairs the Department of Religion at Boston University.
  2. Page 1. Prothero has a lot of company here. For instance, pollster George Gallup, after conducting dozens of surveys over decades, opines that the United States is "a nation of Biblical illiterates." (p. 6)
  3. Page 6, page 30.
  4. Page 30.
  5. Page 30. Prothero also reports that the "vast majority" of his students at Boston University did not know that the First Amendment both guarantees citizens the right to practice religion and prohibits government from endorsing religion. (p. 29) He also says that members of the dozens of Protestant sects typically do not know what is unique to their denomination or what differentiates it from others: "Many Baptists cannot tell you how their denomination understands its signature rite of adult baptism. Many Methodists will simply shrug if you ask them about their denomination's distinctive doctrine of sanctification. And many Lutherans have no idea who Martin Luther is." (p. 33)
  6. Page 33.
  7. Pages 90-91.
  8. Pages 89-103. The disappearance of religion from public schools is usually blamed, incorrectly, Prothero says, on late 20th century Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and devotional Bible reading in the schools (p. 88) or "diabolical secularists conspiring to banish religion from the public square." (p. 89)
  9. Prothero also proposes a mandatory course in religious studies in all colleges. See pp. 139-141.
  10. Page 129. For instance, see Justice Thomas Clark's majority opinion in Abington v. Schempp (1963). In a concurring opinion in the same case, Justice William Brennan wrote: "The holding of the Court today plainly does not foreclose teaching about the differences between religious sects in classes in literature or history. Indeed, whether or not the Bible is involved, it would be impossible to teach meaningfully many subjects in the social sciences or the humanities without some mention of religion." (p. 129) The constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools is also affirmed in Stone v. Graham (1980) and Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). (p. 129) Prothero says that under the law teachers may neither proselytize for Christianity or crusade against it. (p. 133) He writes: "For this agenda to succeed, it is crucial that the distinction between religious studies and theology – between teaching and preaching – be maintained in required courses in higher and secondary education." (p. 141) For the content which Prothero recommends for his proposed high school course in the Bible, see pp. 132-135. Prothero points out that the recognition that we need religiously literate citizens and that teaching about religion is constitutional explains why thirty-five religious and secular groups, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Muslim Council, and the American Humanist Association, signed a statement in 1995 which endorses teaching about religion in the public schools. (p. 131)
  11. Prothero argues that "a student ignorant of the Bible and the world's religions cannot be said to be ready for either college or citizenship" (p. 139) and "the costs of perpetuating religious ignorance are too high in a world in which faith moves, if not mountains, then at least elections and armies." (p. 145)
  12. Recently, when my course in Introduction to Philosophy was taking up the segment on the Philosophy of Religion, I enumerated the major religions of the world and asked the students to raise their hands if they were followers of the one then mentioned. When I finished I noticed that one student had not raised his hand. I asked whether he was a secular. He replied that he didn't raise his hand because I hadn't mentioned his religion – Catholicism. He was oblivious to the fact that Christianity, which was first in the list, includes Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy.
  13. One of the most valuable parts of Prothero's book is Chapter Six, "A Dictionary of Religious Literacy," which runs for more than eighty pages. It gives explanations of dozens and dozens of terms from the world's religions and is followed by a "Religious Literacy Quiz."

© 2008 Tom Shipka