Faith Without Knowledge

23 Sep

In the land of megachurches and the Bible Belt, one would think that the faithful would be very knowledgeable

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix.

English: Christian Bible, rosary, and crucifix. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

about matters of religion. The books of the Old and New Testaments, the names of key figures and the stories they are in, as well as the basic history and doctrines of the Christian faith, should all be common knowledge to most American church-goers.

Not so much.

In Stephen Prothero’s book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t,” we get a splash of cold water in the face. It turns out that American Christians, especially Protestants, don’t know as much about their faith as it would seem. Things like the history of the Reformation, or what the basic orthodox Christian creeds say, are not part of the common knowledge background of most Protestant church-goers today. This is dangerous, not only for the churches, but for our nation as well, “putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads and effectively transferring power from the third estate (the people) to the fourth (the press).”

Prothero, chair of the religion department at Boston University, gives the reader a fascinating and whirlwind history of religion in America, from colonial days to the present. Modeled on E.D. Hirsch’s now classic book “Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” this volume is loaded with facts and statistics contained in 45 pages of footnotes.

While it was the various Christian groups that drove the desire for wider education in early America, ironically it was people of faith that started the nation on the path to religious illiteracy. Prothero shows us how, as public schools spread across the country, people of faith reduced or eliminated doctrinal teachings about Christianity in order to keep religious instruction in the schools. By doing so, by attempting to make religion generic, they succeeded in collapsing religion into morality and “values.” Because of this, true theology and religious ideas have been lost to the culture and to many of the non-denominational churches.

The author has some good suggestions on how to correct this problem. Most important, from my point of view, is to inform the teachers in our schools that it IS constitutional to teach students about religion in an objective, scholarly manner. Many instructors today are petrified to even mention the subject thanks to confusing court rulings and high-pressure humanist groups anxious to erase any mention of religion from the public arena.

Finally, Prothero includes a thorough “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” at the end of the book, which is almost like an introductory course on religious studies by itself.

“Religious Literacy” is a fairly quick and entertaining read. If you really want to understand our country and what role religion plays in our society, you need to understand the religious influences at work in it. As Stephen Prothero puts it, “one needs to know something about the world’s religions in order to be truly educated.”


Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Book Review


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12 responses to “Faith Without Knowledge

  1. Scott Sholar

    September 23, 2013 at 1:03 am

    The problem with the lack of knowledge is not knowing “Things like the history of the Reformation, or what the basic orthodox Christian creeds say.” It is that North American “Christians” don’t know God’s Word, the Bible. They don’t know the teachings of Jesus. They don’t know the Ten Commandments. They don’t know the “fruit of the Spirit” or the “gifts of the Spirit.” They don’t “know” God.

    • Rob

      September 23, 2013 at 4:40 am

      I can’t argue with you there, Scott. Prothero’s book was also about the lack of religious knowledge in America in general and its effect on our nation’s civic culture. I guess I didn’t make that clear enough in my review!

      I appreciate your comment.

      • Scott Sholar

        September 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

        Hi Rob. You are correct. Bless you.

  2. jubilare

    September 23, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    And here, again, another book I want to read. Nay, I probably need to read this. The more we forget the past, the easier we repeat its mistakes and fail to repeat what our ancestors got right.

    • Rob

      September 24, 2013 at 12:34 am

      You’re so right. Isn’t it funny how we think we’re so advanced in our thinking today, and then we go and forget how much our ancestors really did know? And we make even bigger mistakes!

      Thanks for being out there!

      • jubilare

        September 24, 2013 at 1:47 am

        Lewis put his finger on that point very well when he talked about every age having its strengths and failings. I believe it was in an essay titled “A Defense of Reading Old Books” or something like that. I’m being lazy, I know, by not looking it up. I will try and do that tomorrow. But it’s so very true that, while we might disagree with some things that came before us, we really should educate ourselves in order to re-learn the wisdom we’ve left behind.

  3. Rob

    September 24, 2013 at 4:38 am

    Lewis wrote the introduction to a translation of St. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” in which he encourages the reading of old books. It has no title as such, just “Introduction,” but I think that may be what you mean. One of my favorite quotes from that is, “We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”

    • jubilare

      September 24, 2013 at 11:28 am

      I found where I saw it this morning. It’s from God in the Dock, and is called On the Reading of Old Books. I don’t have my copy with me (I am looking at the table of contents on Amazon), but I have no doubt that your source is the original one. I know for sure that the quote you give is part of what I remember reading.

      • Rob

        September 24, 2013 at 4:20 pm

        I need to get a copy of “God in the Dock.” I keep hearing of so many good quotes from that book! Old books rule! (Like old guys!)

        Have a great day.

  4. jubilare

    September 25, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Well, my friend, I have nominated you for the Liebster Award!
    I would love to see your answer to my questions, if you’ve a mind to accept. I think they are fun. 🙂

    • Rob

      September 26, 2013 at 3:09 am

      Thank you so much! I’d love to participate. Is there anything special I need to do? Just answer the questions? Let me know.

      And yes, I absolutely enjoy our discussions.

      • jubilare

        September 26, 2013 at 4:02 am

        You are welcome! Nothing more than what I mention in my post, and even that’s as flexible as you want it to be,
        I am glad. 🙂


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