Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religious illiteracy as a civic--and religious--problem

BU religion professor Stephen Prothero has a new book on religious (il)literacy, which is attracting a lot of attention--see here and here for examples. Of course, his personal site has links to much of the recent coverage.

I’ll probably eventually buy the book, though it smacks a little too much of E.D. Hirsch for my taste. Here’s his religious literacy quiz; take it, if you dare.

Update: Here, via Mere Comments, is a temporary link to Prothero’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the end, I think his project (at least as described in this piece) suffers from a kind of incoherence. On the one hand, he argues that our religious amnesia and ignorance are the products of our toleration. By privatizing religion and trivializing differences, we end up not having anything to take seriously. But we have to take it seriously, he says, for civic reasons:

But the costs of perpetuating religious ignorance are too high in a world in which faith moves, if not mountains, then elections and armies. It does nothing for the secular left to remain ignorant of the religious right, or vice versa. And it puts the United States at risk to remain ignorant as a society of the beliefs and practices of Confucians in North Korea, Hindus in India, and Muslims in Iran.


In debates about the fate of the Middle East, the propriety of gay marriage, and the politics of Islam, the stakes are too high to defer to politicians and pundits. Given the ubiquity of religious discourse in American public life, and the public power of religion at home and abroad, we Americans — whether liberals or conservatives, believers or unbelievers — need to learn about evangelicalism and Islam for ourselves, to see for ourselves what the Bible says about family values, homosexuality, war, and capital punishment, and to be aware of what Islam says about those things, too.

But if my motivation to learn about something is civic, then I’m likely to be tempted to make the innumerable and confusing complications go away, if I can, with the wish being the father of the "fact." An argument that you have "instrumentally" to know something is different from, and inferior to, an incitement to learn about something because it satisfies a deep longing. What will lead to more religious knowledge is more religious seriousness, of the sort that is described here (by Prothero):

In recent years, George M. Marsden, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, and Warren A. Nord, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, have argued for the return of "normative religious teaching" to American colleges and universities. They want professors not only to describe religious traditions but also to weigh in on their vices and virtues. Each of these scholars has also argued that it is essential for students to learn "religious perspectives" in disciplines other than religious studies — to study theological critiques of classical economics and "religious interpretations of history." "There should be room," writes Nord, for both objective analysis of religion and "normative reflection on religion."


What Marsden and Nord seem to want is to make colleges and universities (or pockets of them) into religious places once again — to resurrect the big questions of God, creation, and sin not only in departments of religion but also in courses in philosophy and economics and history and political science.

All this brings back to mind, as I noted earlier, the pairing of Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch in the late 80s. Who’s going to write The Closing of the American Soul? Or might it already have been written--
here, here, or perhaps here.

Discussions - 2 Comments

The suggestion that Christians aren’t aware of the beliefs of secularists doesn’t fly. Over the last hundred years, over a hundred million people have been murdered by the secularists. We’ve been forced to learn all too much about the messianic motivations of the Left, and the secularists.

You could go back and pull up Papal statements about the Left in the 1840s. And those statements are prescient. Not just did the Church say the socialists would fail, not just did they say they were wrong, they said that even in a field the left claims a unique specialization in, economics, that even there, the socialists would prove themselves failures. And they did.

Problem was, that nobody listened to the Church. Up to the Bolshevik Revolution and beyond, the Church raised its voice against the horrors of Marxism. And nobody really paid any attention.

The Holy Spirit has not left the Church blind to what’s going on in the world.

Prothero’s quiz is pretty stupid. Even I got them all right. For many undergraduates, revealing questions would be What was Jesus’ last name? or Martin Luther belonged to what denomination? or What’s a sacrament?

Over the years, from my classes in American political thought, I have learned two things. (1) Undergraduates, even apparently churched undergraduates, are remarkably ignorant of Christian theology and its history, and equally ignorant of church history, and (2) readily fascinated by both.

Thanks to Joe for postings like these. They have contributed to my education, big-time. be

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