Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Faith vs. Knowledge

Stephen Prothero offers an entertaining and troubling analysis of Americans' lack of religious knowledge. He suggests that contemporary political culture demonstrates a troubling contradiction:  while politicians, policy makers, and pundits regularly use religious references in presenting their positions, most Americans don't know religious texts well enough to determine whether these references make sense.  Worse, he says, our lack of religious knowledge undermines our foreign policy and complicates the current "war on terror," because military, intelligence, and policy leaders don't understand the Islamic ideas and divisions involved. 

I find the second point more persuasive than the first, because Prothero's claim about American religious illiteracy is based in part on survey data that reveals people's inability to do things like name the four gospels in the New Testament or the five Old Testament books that make up the Torah.  I'm always skeptical about evaluating people's knowledge on the basis of our ability to name things.  As I tell my literature students, I'm not all that concerned about whether they remember a character's name or the year in which something was published; the key is their ability to analyze the character's function in a play or to discuss the historical context in which something was written and read.  The same is true for religion. 

No doubt, for many Americans, any reference to the Bible serves as evidence that the speaker is "good," regardless of whether the citation works, and I think we should be troubled by any form of knee-jerk religious response.  On the other hand, it's quite possible to understand the underlying ideas in a Biblical story without being able to remember whether it appears in the Old or New Testament.

Prothero's second concern seems, to me, much greater.  We know almost nothing about other religions -- even, in many cases, about other religions that are practiced by many of our neighbors.   This reflects Americans' general lack of knowledge about the rest of the world as well as our fears about teaching religion.  As Prothero suggests, we need to create space in the curriculum, ideally on the secondary level, to teach about world religions. 

As a member of a minority religion, I understand both why this matters and why it can seem scary.  On the one hand, I want more people to understand my religion, and I wish I knew more about other non-dominant religions.  On the other hand, I worry about how such courses would be taught in a society where many are promoting "intelligent design." 

Clearly, religion is at once a driving force in American culture and an ongoing challenge.  In what seems to be an increasingly divided, conflicted, partisan society, how do we pursue the goal of more and better religious understanding?  It may not be easy. 

1 comment:

Tyler said...

My initial response is to suggest that--except at the in-depth graduate level--religions are best taught in that holistic, comparative context where similarities and contrasts are assessed.

I'm sure there's another angle, but for me the "Joseph Campbell approach" of looking across religions for what they tell us about ourselves and our myths is the most productive method for general religious study.