Religious Literacy and Stephen Prothero by P. Willow Cloin


A university friend and I attended a lecture by Dr. Stephen Prothero recently, and she has kindly allowed me to publish the “extra credit essay” she wrote for her Religious Studies class below. Stephen Prothero is busy exposing how little USAers know about this world’s religions. He didn’t even mention Sikhi in his talk or on his quiz; which is not surprising because Sikhi has not been taught as a world religion in the West until very recently. Dr. Prothero asserts that even those students in his university classes who say they are Christian do not know the first thing about Christianity. Can you pass his religious literacy quiz?


Religious Literacy and Stephen Prothero
by P. Willow Cloin

In order to offer a novel twist to this extra credit assignment, I Googled Stephen Prothero, and quickly discovered that a “buzz” has been going on for the better part of a year over his bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t.* I decided it would be useful to give a short rundown of the media coverage the book has had.

To judge by the media coverage, Stephen Prothero’s book has hit an American nerve. I’m happy to report that, because of this class, I was able to answer all but one of the 15 of the questions on his “Religious Literacy Quiz”. However, to borrow from the song, we Americans “don’t know much about Christianity” or any of the other world religions. His lecture and his interviews and his book all argue that religion is too dangerous and important a subject to allow our children to remain ignorant, especially in light of 9/11 and other religiously motivated events; we should do our best to educate our children about it.

One of the first things Prothero said in his talk was that religion is his favorite subject. One of the last things he admitted to was that he is a “confused Christian.” To round out his personal information, the publisher of his book, Harper Collins ( offers a quick bio for Prothero: he is the chair of the religion department at Boston University. His 2003 book, American Jesus, won awards from Publishers Weekly and the Chicago Tribune. He writes and reviews for the New York Times Magazine, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and other publications. He holds degrees from Harvard and Yale.

Most of the media predictably and gleefully cited funny examples of errors made on Prothero’s “Religious Literacy Quiz”; very few went much further in their reports. One of the best examples of this kind of newspaper coverage was that of USA Today, in “Americans get an ‘F’ in Religion,” by Cathy Lynn Grossman (March 7, 2007); it has the best “cute” examples, but she also reports on the status of schools that are teaching religion; it mentions the work of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, which is the most active proponent of religious literacy in schools that I located.

Mark Oppenheimer seriously panned Religious Literacy in the prestigious New York Times Sunday Book Review (June 10, 2007). He called the book, Prothero’s “Jeremiad”, and insisted that we’ve all given up on The Bible, so what’s the point? Oppenheimer writes, “Americans have crafted a religiosity that is more an idea of religiosity; together we have largely agreed to forgo its content…religious knowledge is not necessary to be a good citizen. It’s just necessary if one wants to be an educated person.”

Time Magazine’s April 2, 2007, cover humorously depicts a characteristically yellow and black copy of “Cliff’s Notes” for “The Bible” and reads, “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School.” David Van Biema’s cover story is a better than average rendering, until its last paragraph, which has an odd, out-of-place ring to it and I think it is a good example of some of the nuttier responses to Prothero’s book. It states:

“And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.”

Stephen Prothero underwent numerous interviews with the likes of PBS and the The US News and World Report, and answered the same questions and objections to his proposal repeatedly – would it be constitutional to teach religion in public schools? Who would teach such a class and how do you keep “preaching” out of the classroom? What about the teacher’s bias toward Christianity? He was also had guest spots on the Oprah Show and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

I agree with Stephen Prothero and I hope that his work at popularizing this subject will gather enough momentum for change. However, according to Dr. Charles Haynes (Senior Scholar, Freedom Forum First Amendment Center), in a panel discussion on PBS with Prothero, only one public school in Modesto, CA, currently requires a religion class. It would seem that those of us who would support Prothero’s views have our work cut out for us.


1 Comment

Filed under Multicultural

One response to “Religious Literacy and Stephen Prothero by P. Willow Cloin

  1. Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s