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For Religious Literacy, a dictionary is not enough
on June 24, 2011
In Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero draws much-needed attention to the shocking state of religious illiteracy in the country, and seeks to provide "What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't" (the book's sub-title).
In the Introduction and Parts 1-5 of the book, Prothero explains why religion matters, how we got into the present predicament, and what we need to do to redeem ourselves, as he puts it. These sections, which constitute two-thirds of the book, are very detailed, and make a strong case for seeking to close the gap in religious knowledge. They also whet our appetite for information that would actually provide what's needed.
The next section, Part 6, covers information that Prothero considers necessary for Americans to become knowledgeable enough to "understand and participate in religiously inflected public debates". However, this Part of the book is surprisingly thin. Its 85-page "Dictionary of Religious Literacy" covers a large number of diverse topics arranged in alphabetic order, without an obvious basis for selecting the topics or determining their relative importance. Some entries are a page long, while others are covered in just a few lines; and some entries provide the historical context and significance of the religious term or practice, while others provide only the bare facts.
Had this book not been billed as "what every American needs to know" about the world's religions, the highly uneven coverage of terms, beliefs, practices, and personalities of various religions might have been just fine. In my view, given its ambitious objective, Prothero sets the bar too low, and the "religious dictionary" provides only a sampling of the information that is needed. I could not help thinking that had the lead-in (Parts 1-5) to the "knowledge" section been much shorter, and Part 6 considerably longer and meatier, the book might have better succeeded in achieving its stated purpose.
The information provided in the book is thus a small step towards eradicating religious illiteracy. Much more is needed, for which other sources of knowledge would have to be tapped. Nevertheless, the book serves as a timely wake-up call for improving religious literacy in the country. Prothero is right also to emphasize that the proposed religious education courses should adequately cover all world religions.