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Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't Hardcover – March 13, 2007

3.7 out of 5 stars 161 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Prothero (American Jesus), chair of the religion department at Boston University, begins this valuable primer by noting that religious illiteracy is rampant in the United States, where most Americans, even Christians, cannot name even one of the four Gospels. Such ignorance is perilous because religion "is the most volatile constituent of culture" and, unfortunately, often "one of the greatest forces for evil" in the world, he writes. Prothero does more than diagnose the problem; he traces its surprising historic roots ("in one of the great ironies of…history, it was the nation's most fervent people of faith who steered Americans down the road to religious illiteracy") and prescribes concrete solutions that address religious education while preserving First Amendment boundaries about religion in the public square. Prothero also offers a dictionary of religious literacy and a quiz for readers to test their knowledge. This book is a must-read not only for educators, clergy and government officials, but for all adults in a culture where, as Prothero puts it, "faith without understanding is the standard" and "religious ignorance is bliss." (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperOne (March 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060846704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060846701
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (161 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,953 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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