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Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't Paperback – March 11, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. For a nation brimming with religion, Prothero wants to know why so many people lack genuine knowledge about their religion as well as others. Believing that American culture seriously lacks knowledge about the fundamentals of most world religions, he argues that schools need to teach classes that legitimately explore all world religions. In the tradition of E.D. Hirsch, he provides a collection of quintessential terms that define the current religious landscape. While the dominant presence of Christianity may cause resentment among secularists, the author is fairly objective in his discussion and justification for such reliance on Christianity. In terms of sound quality, the editors missed several vocal shifts, points where the author begins reading a new sentence in a distinctively different voice than the previous sentence. As narrator, Prothero proves competent but not entirely compelling. His pacing and emphasis certainly work well with his material, but his soft voice and relaxed tone leave something to be desired. Though these are his own written words, he doesn't command the text in the way one would expect. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* The author of I^ American Jesus (2003) opens this important book with a paradox. To wit, Americans are deeply religious I^ and profoundly ignorant about religion; that is, one of the most religious countries is also a nation of "religious illiterates." Prothero calls religious illiteracy dangerous because religion is one of the greatest forces for good--as well as evil--in the world. Nowadays, standing on shaky religious ground can be literally a matter of life and death. To cite two brief examples of America's religious illiteracy: only half of American adults can name one of the four Gospels, and 10 percent of Americans believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Prothero defines religious literacy--what it is, and what it is not. He also discusses the two great religious revivals in U.S. history, the Second Great Awakening of the nineteenth century and the postwar revival of the 1940s and 1950s. He argues both the constitutionality and the necessity of teaching--with an emphasis on spreading knowledge, not inculcating values--about religion in public schools and higher education. He suggests that every U.S. public high school should require a course on the Bible and another on the religions of the world. And he devotes an entire chapter to "a modest list" of a hundred or so religious terms that he deems essential, from I^ Abraham to I^ Zionism, to any American's religious knowledge. A must-read on its subject. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 371 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne; Reprint edition (March 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060859520
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060859527
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (142 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #23,109 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Prothero is the New York Times bestselling author of Religious Literacy and chair of the religion department at Boston University. His work has been featured on the cover of Time magazine, Oprah, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, National Public Radio, and other top national media outlets. He writes and reviews for The New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and other publications. He holds degrees in American Religion from Harvard and Yale.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

174 of 195 people found the following review helpful By S. Porretta on June 20, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I saw this book discussed on "The Jon Stewart Show" and thought the premise was interesting. I share in the author's concern about the increasing religious illiteracy of our nation. It doesn't mean that you have to be religious to appreciate the value that religion has contributed historically and culturally. As the author states, you just can't be an educated citizen without knowledge of religion, especially in times like these when religion is infusing our politics be it from the Religious Right or from dangerous misconceptions that we have about Islam. In order to be a good "world citizen," you really do need to know about religion. That is the author's premise in a nutshell.

Now, having said this, the book is not exactly what I expected. It is divided into three parts, outlining what we used to know about religion starting from Colonial times, how we gradually inadvertently became increasingly illiterate about the subject, and the author's ideal proposal of how to get back our knowledge, which is a very ambitious proposal indeed. I enjoyed the first chapter or so where he discusses the extent to which Americans are illiterate about religion by citing startling statistical examples of misconceptions in the general public and humorous mistakes that students make in identifying Bible characters and stories. I also enjoyed the mini quiz that you can take to see just how illiterate you are.

However, with a title like the one this book has, I expected to be told outright just what it is we need to know about religion as is relevant to our times. I did not find this in the book except for the last chapter which is a dictionary of religious terms that the author believes are essential for us to know in our modern world.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By David Crumm on February 16, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Looking over the online reviews of Stephen Prothero's superb book, "Religious Literacy," it's obvious that many readers were drawn to the book as a primer on world religions -- which Stephen could have written. He's chair of the religion department at Boston University and well qualified to write such a book.

But, in fact, there are a whole lot of terrific overviews. Search for books by Huston Smith or (even though Stephen Prothero often takes issue with themes in her works) Karen Armstrong or find a terrific book like "Talking With God: Portrait of a World at Prayer" -- or "How to Be a Perfect Stranger" or "The Atlas of Religion." The list goes on and on of wonderful books that provide precisely that kind of overview experience. It's true that scholars debate among themselves on details -- Stephen and Karen would disagree on some points, for instance. But this field is well planted.

What we've got here is a 150-page overview of how Americans reached this point of almost defiant ignorance about religion -- not anyone reading this review, I'm sure. You're reading this review because you know how important it is for us all to understand the impact of faith on the world -- for good and sometimes, tragically, for ill.

Then, Prothero adds a terrific 85-page "Dictionary of Religious Literacy," which is perfect for parents, students, teachers, clergy -- and professionals in almost any field who meet the public regularly. This is the kind of book you want to have handy on your shelf to pull down and flip to this concise Dictionary section.

Then, he's got his widely shared quiz on religion, suggestions for further reading -- and a whole lot of "Notes" that can guide you deeper into exploring the many issues he raises.
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367 of 457 people found the following review helpful By Glen Ivey on March 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
I didn't actually read this book--this review is about why I returned it to Amazon instead. After seeing an interview with the author, I bought the book expecting it to be a primer on the relationship between different religious forms, their practices, beliefs, etc. On receiving it, I discovered that the vast majority of the book is a (probably quite good) history of religious education in the US and a summary of its current state. Only one chapter of the book (admittedly the largest chapter) actually gives information actually about religion, and in an alphabetical, encyclopedic format rather than a narrative explanation.

If you're looking for a history of religious education and an argument for greatly expanding religious education today, please don't let this review stop you from buying. But if you're looking to educate yourself about (comparative) religion and beliefs other than your own, look elsewhere.
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136 of 169 people found the following review helpful By Noodlestorm on March 19, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic and Religion. When I was in elementary school, I often asked, "Why do I have to do this?" and "Why can't I just work on stuff I'm going to need in real life?" Now that I'm living real life as an adult, I see how essential things like Bible stories, nursery rhymes, learning to count money for my piggy bank and memorizing multiplication tables really are for life as an effective, functional, contributing adult citizen.

The author is able to engage the reader in the subject of religious studies, without being religious, self-righteous, or condescending. He brings up many more points about basic knowledge of facts and subjects that have been abandoned by the educational system that results in a less-than-informed citizenry and the dire consequences of a population that may end up voting against their own interests.

This is an excellent book, easy to digest and even easier to spread the word about. Read it, think about it and tell others.
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