163 of 181 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2007
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. If only the entire book had been a discussion about this, I would have been more satisfied. It is more a history lesson about what we used to know and how we have lost that knowledge, but doesn't tell you really what you do need to know. So I found the title misleading.
The author does state clearly that the book is not a text on "Religion 101," but I wish it had been. Granted, I never read any reviews or even the description on the book beforehand - I just went on the title alone. But if only he had, for example, broken up the book into sections about topics that are relevant in the here and now, such as what Americans need to know about Islam (its holy book, major characters, teachings, and divisions). And another chapter on Christianity as far as divisions between Protestants and Catholics, about what different Protestant denominations believe, about morality and values, etc. All of these things are covered in the dictionary at the end of the book, but not so much in depth. This would have been different than just a "Religion 101" book because it would have dealt with religious topics and terms relevant to the here and now - indeed, it would have been an early 21st century primer on what we really need to know about religion to be educated world citizens in this day and age. That is what I had been expecting and I was disappointed that it was not.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2008
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.
Understood for what it is, the book is very, very important. Most Americans I've encountered myself -- as a journalist covering the impact of religion for nearly a quarter of a century -- tend to think that religion is something that has been excluded from public education -- and we're, generally, disturbed by that fact. Well, in this book, Prothero eloquently explains why we got to this point -- what can be done (and a whole lot can be done fairly easily!) -- and why we all should care.
Excellent book. One of those books, in this era, that ranks as a "must own" volume for me and for many readers I've talked with since the book appeared.
362 of 450 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2007
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.
133 of 165 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified 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.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Stephen Prothero provides an excellent account of religious education in America and demonstrates the pitfalls associated with religious ignorance. Although he doesn't go into how ignorance of Islam led America into Iraq, he does cover both the nature and extent of the shortcomings of our educational system when it comes to promoting tolerance and understanding. Out of a misplaced fear of violating the First Amendment, most schools have taught as though religion doesn't matter when, in fact, religious literacy is a critical tool if you want to be able to analyze what's going on in the world.
The final chapter is devoted to a dictionary of world religions that covers Christianity relatively well, but doesn't really give a very useful account of other religions, although there is a suggested reading list at the end that might be helpful.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on March 24, 2007
Stephen Prothero has written an engaging and provocative companion volume to Hirsch's earlier "Cultural Literacy." Like Hirsch, Prothero seeks not to proselytize but to improve through enrichment the nature of "civic education" in the United States. A vast ignorance in religious matters, like that Hirsch discerned in cultural, hobbles the citizenry in its understanding of contemporary debates as well as in its fulfilling the requirement within a properly functioning republic that it be an informed populace.
The depth of the ignorance Prothero documents is brought home to me semester after semester as college students declare that "A.D." means "after death." I can only assume they think Herod was successful in the slaughter of the innocents and that the infant Jesus of Nazareth was murdered in the year 1. When I ask where they've picked up this bit of counter-intuitive misinformation, they reply universally that they were taught this by high school teachers. If this is so, Prothero has shown only the tip of the iceberg of religious ignorance in our most religious of countries.
42 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2007
i have just finished this compelling book - compelling because it is a wonderful "read" (prothero's writing is informal yet chock full of facts, like a most interesting conversation) and because it contains some terribly important things for the american public to consider. i will be recommending this to everyone i know. i hope our president and national leaders pick it up as well. perhaps i'll send the white house a copy.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
One of the best books written recently on religious literacy or lack of it. Carefully and interestingly outlines religious awareness and religious values of the country when it was established, chronicles how it changed and why and how we got to be where we are today, a God-fearing nation of religious illiterates. Can reasonably educated people in this country today really think that Joan of Arc or Noah's wife? Apparently so.
Some of Prothero's best work is on the separation of church and state. The observation that the fence separating church and state is rickety and full of holes and has been that way, he observes, "since George Washington put his hand on the Bible and took an oath in the name of god to uphold a godless constitution..." Good stuff, good thought, and in keeping with most of this book.
It does, at times, get a little too academic and "over-the-top," but the points are strong, necessary and well made. A valuable addition to religous throught and discourse of today.
The Dictionary of Terms at the end is worth the cost of the book, and should make this book a keeper for every American's library.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on July 15, 2007
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
After having seen Mr. Prothero promote his book on the Daily Show, and having read his review of a similar book in the Yale Alumni Magazine, I was expecting sort of a crash course in world religions. After all, the book is called, "What Every American Needs to Know" - I had thus assumed that the book would contain just that: the essential information to understand belief systems all over the world. I hoped to learn about Buddhism, Jainism, etc.
Instead, Prothero lays out his argument for WHY Americans need to know these things. The focus of the book is not to educate the reader, but simply to tell them that they SHOULD be educated.
The first half of "Religious Literacy", I feel, could have been collapsed into a few pages, or perhaps into a single sentence: "Americans used to know a lot about religion, and now we don't." The second half is SORT of an attempt to educate the reader on certain aspects of world religions, but this is done in an extremely ineffective glossary format, in which some insignificant details are given lots of space, and many world religions are passed over entirely.
In sum, I found that I had not been sold on Prothero's central argument that Christians should spend more time learning Christian doctrine, and furthermore that I had not learned very much about the many world religions with which I had hoped to become more familiar.
32 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2007
I got an early copy of this and read it over a weekend. Great stuff! I am really curious about religion and history and this book was a great read for me. I have not read any of Prothero's books so I can not compare, but this one was an enjoyable read and I learned a lot!