Is True Religion Possible with Religious Ignorance?

Are Americans the most religiously ignorant
people in the Western world?


Susan Jacoby’s review of Religious Literacy by Stephen Prothero makes a point that’s not surprising but is certainly depressing. Only a third of people surveyed could identify who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Less than half know Genesis is the first book of the Bible.

Ignorance of religion abounds. I recently heard a quote from Shakespeare attributed to Jesus, and Prothero reports that 10% of the people believe Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc!

The increase in religious ignorance is most likely a product of the culture. We’re watching screens more and reading less. Screens convey more information than we can absorb and we’ve become adept at filtering out those messages we’re not interested in and sometimes we miss those we want to consider.

We are left with impressions, but not depth. Our “knowledge” is a mile wide and an inch deep. Television newscasts call a minute and a half story “in-depth” coverage.

Several years ago we learned students couldn’t read a map, nor find the states in the union. Then we discovered they couldn’t identify key historical facts, such as when the Civil War occurred or who fought the Revolutionary War. Some don’t know what the Bill of Rights is.

Because religion is such a powerful platform for action–positive and negative–religious ignorance is not benign. It’s dangerous.

Moreover, if religion is to provide us meaning and purpose, it can do so most effectively when we are informed and able to express belief as both experience and substance. Religion informs values that are the basis for living. Faithfulness demands we study religious precepts in order to understand the values that guide our actions.

Jacoby reports that Prothero believes religious ignorance can be reversed and he offers suggestions to accomplish this. The need for religious literacy should be abundantly clear. And the time to start recovering it is now.

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