Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thoughts on Religious Literacy

Religion and Politics - there's an explosive topic for a casual blog post. It would probably be safer to avoid both subjects while I'm in this public arena, but oh what the hell....

This week, I read Stephen Prothero’s New York Times bestseller Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t, which theorizes that the majority of Americans who call themselves religious (which is, in fact, the majority of Americans) are largely ignorant of theology. In America, Prothero laments, “faith without understanding is the standard.” He offers some depressing survey results, but for the most part assumes that intelligent readers will agree with him (and, having seen Jay Leno’s man-on-the-street routine and heard our president speak, I do), and quickly moves on to offer an explanation of how this happened.

Prothero’s book takes us back to the First Great Awakening (1730s & 1740s), when colonial Puritans “celebrated the doctrinal and experiential dimensions of religion.” He singles out preacher Jonathan Edwards (of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” fame) as the “grand synthesizer of Puritan thought” who saw Christian life as “a dance of the head and the heart, the intellect and the emotions.” This dual worldview, Prothero says, crumbled during the Second Great Awakening (1800 – 1830), when evangelical Christians started “a battle inside American Christianity between piety and learning – a battle that learning lost.” The Civil War amplified the trend: “Americans grew tired of theological controversies. Desperate for union in church as well as state, they gravitated – in churches, schools, and colleges – toward a lowest-common-denominator faith.” Over the course of the 20th century, the author argues, that lowest-common-denominator Protestantism morphed into a generic Christianity and a “generic moralism,” largely void of doctrine, resulting in today’s mainstream American Christianity – which he calls a “religion of ethics” rather than a religion of theology. The bottom line: most Americans don’t consider religious study necessary because they don’t believe that Christianity is a matter of knowledge; rather, it’s matter of “faith in faith.”

I’m interested in this perspective because it dovetails with my study of T.S. Eliot, who was born in Missouri a few years after the Civil War. Eliot’s family came from a Puritan background, but the poet was raised in the theologically-liberal Unitarian Church, where he was taught that human nature is inherently good and that the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is bunk. One of Eliot’s Harvard professors, Barrett Wendell, wrote in 1900 that the Unitarian faith renders Jesus useless: “The moment you assumed human nature to contain adequate seeds of good, the necessity for a divine Redeemer disappeared.” In A Literary History of America, Wendell also writes about Ralph Waldo Emerson, another eminent American writer who was raised in the Unitarian Church. Emerson argued that American scholars should look for God in themselves rather than in ancient religious texts. According to Prothero, this Transcendentalist perspective was one of the many causes of the dominance of an “unsectarianism” attitude in America’s 20th century education system.

When T.S. Eliot arrived at Harvard in 1906, he was entering a university in which religious classics had been replaced by literature, and theology replaced by a “spiritual anti-intellectualism.” Though Prothero never names Eliot, he offers insight on the poet’s college-era outlook with his observation that “this spiritual anti-intellectualism – both highbrow and lowbrow, liberal and evangelical – drove a wedge into the Puritan synthesis of head and heart, forcing many Americans to make a Solomonic choice between the intellect and the emotions.” For over a decade after he left college, Eliot was unable to make a choice. He could embrace neither the spiritual anti-intellectualism of Romantic writers (like Emerson) nor the theology of more Classical writers (like his eventual hero Dante). He slowly gravitated toward Elizabethan and Jacobean writers and toward the Anglican Church, where head and heart, thought and feeling seemed to be equally valued.

Prothero sheds even more light on Eliot’s struggle by dividing American Christians into three groups: confessionalists (who encounter God via reason), experientalists (who encounter God via emotions), and moralists (who encounter God via will power). Most Christians, the author says, are a combination of all three, but he stipulates that “over the course of the last two centuries American Protestants and Catholics alike have migrated away from confessionalism to some combination of experience and morality, and in recent years the moralists have triumphed.” Some contemporary American scholars – according to their own religious background – may be inclined to view the converted T.S. Eliot strictly as a moralist. I tend to think of him more as a confessionalist, who would have agreed with Prothero’s argument that “you cannot really respect a religion that you do not understand” and “understanding a foreign religious tradition means wrestling with ways in which a religion is fundamentally different from your own.” In fact, this complex viewpoint is one of the reasons why Eliot remains such an important voice for Americans today.

How many times have we heard George W. Bush say that “Islam is peace,” trying to lump that religion into a generic moralism? It’s a well-meaning statement – encouraging us obey Jesus’ commandment to “love thy neighbor” – but it’s also an oversimplification. I’d respond the same way if he said that “Christianity is peace.” Didn’t Jesus also say that he had not come to send peace, but a sword? For the sake of tolerance and peace, generic moralism may be the best of all possible state religions at this time… but it is worth seriously considering the possibility that we can create a longer-lasting peace by recognizing the ways that others cultures and religions are distinctly different from our own, and trying to understand them on their own terms.

With this in mind, Prothero argues that we should consider re-instituting religion in our public education system. He proposes two courses at the middle school or high school level: a course on the history and doctrine of Christianity (since it is, after all, the dominant religion in western society) and a comparative course on the other major world religions. To be clear, he is not advocating a “return to America’s Judeo-Christian roots” – a battle cry that is as politically destructive as it is ignorant (see Susan Jacoby’s book Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America). These courses must be designed to promote understanding, not to indoctrinate students into any particular religion or to encourage religious relativism.

I have mixed feelings on this proposal.

Like the author, I was raised in a Protestant church. I learned about the most famous Hebrew Bible stories in Sunday school and about the New Testament Gospels in Sunday worship. In my freshman year of high school, I also studied the Bible as literature. By then, I already had a sense of Bible stories as stories. I don’t remember having any strong belief or disbelief in their truth as the Word of God. The following year, I studied Western philosophy for the first time, and it was then that I realized that, instead of metaphysical belief, I had a desire for belief. In my junior year of college, I took a course called Theodicy in Literature. One of the key texts was Peter Berger’s 1967 book The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion. Berger wrote that traditional religion was hopelessly at odds with the modern, secular world. I drew the conclusion that I had a desire for a kind of belief that simply couldn’t exist anymore. That’s the main reason that I started researching Eliot – because I wanted to understand how he was able to accept Christianity after coming to the same conclusion.

Berger has since renounced his theory – his 1999 book The Desecularization of the World acknowledges that religion is very much alive in the social consciousness of modern America. But he argues that the nature of mainstream religion has changed from acceptance of a self-evident reality to the individual’s search for meaning. In other words, modern faith is an ever-changing reality – which many Americans tend to refer to as “spiritual” rather than “religious.”

This might explain why, a few years ago, I developed an interest in the Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. Vedanta teaches that people have very different religious temperaments, and recognizes the need for different types of religions and philosophies to satisfy those different temperaments. Just as Prothero divided American Christians into three groups, Vedanta divides religious seekers into four groups: Bhakti Yoga (the path of devotion), Gnana Yoga (the path of knowledge), Karma Yoga (the path of action), and Hatha Yoga (the path of compulsion).

I’m tempted to add that all paths lead to the same goal. The four paths of Vedanta seem to me to have a corollary in Jesus’s other basic commandment – that we should love God with all our hearts, minds, bodies and souls. But I think this kind of comparison is where we sometimes get into trouble. It seems that most modern seekers don’t generally know what they're seeking, and many (especially in a culture that encourages individualism) don’t want someone else’s goal imposed on them – they want to discover meaning for and by themselves. If seeking is more of a cultural norm in contemporary America than finding, then the most useful thing we can do to create an atmosphere of peace is to understand the need for many paths... and to have a basic knowledge of those paths.

Given the current climate of world politics, Prothero says that we should all make an effort to understand the major world religions so that we can understand politics. If our political leaders are going to use thinly-disguised religious teachings to justify their decision to (for example) go to war, while others are using religious teachings to justify their decision to attack us, shouldn’t we understand their reasoning? I'm not inclined to argue with Prothero's opinion that American students need to be better educated about religion, as a matter of social and civic responsibility. The problem, as I see it, is how well we can realistically implement Prothero’s plan of education.

I remember my high school philosophy teacher championing the Reason of Socrates to one devoutly Christian student: “If there is a God, then He would not have given us the power of reason if He did not want us to use it.” If religion becomes part of the curriculum, I think that all teachers would need to be equally diligent about developing their students’ powers of objective reasoning. In general, that means at least as much specific focus on critical thinking as on religion. This is a VERY tall order in a culture that emphasizes information over knowledge, faith over understanding. Can it be done?

In all likelihood, we won’t get to find out. The volatility of the subject of religious education in our current political environment almost guarantees that Prothero’s idea won’t be implemented anytime soon… which is not only ironic, but also a shame if it really is the most effective way to minimize the destructive ignorance of America’s current political environment.


  1. All points very well-taken, Joe. I was similarly raised in a Protestant household, albeit one that didn't necessarily discuss the meanings at root in religion. I came to secularlism first after reading A HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE by Charles Van Doren, which was my first whirlwind survey into intellectual (and theological) history. Since I've become a pretty committed "secular humanist" - the soft sell of atheism wiht a human face.

    Having seen both sides (HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES comes to mind), I feel that it is absolutely necessary for responsible citizens in democracy to have some exposure to religion via a classroom setting. There is nothing more terrifying for me than the hermetic study of religion undertaken only by an elect/believer community totally unconcerned with how they interact with others. I find that some of the best writing on religion is by the irreligous, just as I find some of the best writing on the secular belief systems (science, psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc) often comes from those with religious sympathies.

    That in mind, I would like to see a course on Western/foundational religous beliefs compared to other traditions, but one that still investigates atheism and agnosticism as viable views. The last two are considered dirty words amongst many religious pundits, and I would like to see this bias eased or slightly erased in my lifetime.

    The book in question seems immanently interesting. I'll have to look in to it.

  2. "Didn’t Jesus also say that he had not come to send peace, but a sword?"

    No, that was Bill Clark in episode 2.2 - but I digress...

    I consider myself to be very lucky in that I was sent to a Baptist school for K through 4, yet my parents only went to church about 3 times that I can remember. I learned to sniff out hypocrisy at a very young age, so the brainwashing never had a chance to work on me. Instead, I absorbed the myth, just like I did with every book I read as a child. Whether it was someone in the Bible or someone in Mother Goose didn't matter. I was keen on the story, and what it meant - not whether it was true.

    I've since studied (on my own and in classrooms) celtic and welsh mythology, hinduism, buddhism, wicca (and all the various modern offshoots) - you name it, I devour it. One of my favorite books of all time is Joseph Campbell's 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' because it helps to confirm what I've known for most of my life - we all tell the same stories to make sense of life and death. Religion is not about who is right, but who you identify with to help get you through the day.

    That said, the paradox of tolerance is a fundamentalist on your doorstep at 7am whose beliefs include the fact that you are wrong and must be converted. How does one deal with that while insisting that neither of you is right?

  3. Kim -

    I agree. I usually find it more interesting and rewarding to talk Story than to talk Religion or Politics. People (of all stripes) tend to be much more reasonable and open-minded about stories.... that's part of the genius behind THB.

    You might be interested in "The Golden Bough" by James George Frazer and "Psychology of the Unconscious" by Carl Jung... precursors to Campbell.