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Cover Story

Religious illiteracy

by Dr. Susan K. Wood, S.C.L., Professor of Theology

Question: What do the American dispute over an Islamic center near the site of 9/11, the war in Northern Ireland and a promotion for the popular television series Desperate Housewives have in common?

Answer: To understand them requires religious literacy.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently disseminated the results of a survey on religious literacy that asked questions about knowledge of beliefs and practices of major religious traditions, as well as the role of religion in American history and public life. The results were dismal for a country that is among the most religious of the world’s developed nations.

Nearly six in 10 U.S. adults said that religion is “very important” in their lives, and roughly four in 10 said they attend worship services at least once a week. Yet on the average, only half of those surveyed knew basic facts about the Bible, world religions and religion in civic life, such as the fact that the golden rule is not one of the Ten Commandments, that the Qur’an is the Islamic holy book, that Joseph Smith, Jr., was Mormon and the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation, that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday or that the four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These are not obscure facts belonging to the upper echelon of university theology, but arguably elements of a basic knowledge of world culture.

Why is the contrast between religious identity and the reality of our religious understanding important? Religious literacy can inoculate against fanaticism and prejudice. Not only the proposed Islamic center in New York City, but also the construction of new mosques in other places in the country have drawn opposition and protests, and existing mosques have been subjected to arson and vandalism. In post-9/11 America, many associate terrorism with Islam. Yet Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Islamic charity is a core commitment of the faith.

Time magazine recently asked, “Is America Islamophobic?” We tend to fear the unknown. The antidote to ignorance about Islam is education.

One cannot understand Western Civilization  or any civilization, for that matter  without knowledge of religion. When education and culture were nearly wiped out in Europe at the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church became the stabilizing institution within society and the transmitter of culture and literacy. Buddhism influenced the caste systemin India. The Hebrew religion and ethical system helped shape Western law. The map of Europe even today reflects religious affiliations and the results of religious wars at various points in history.

Closer to home, deep connections between religious coalitions and politics regularly play out in congressional campaigns. Debates in Kansas about teaching creationism in the schools pit fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible against scientific evolution theories. Religious illiteracy may result in the view that all Christians believe in the literal interpretation of scripture or that religious faith is incompatible with scientific knowledge or that faith is incompatible with reason. To be religiously literate is to be aware of the great diversity among belief systems  and the nuances within them.

Religious literacy is essential to understanding world conflicts and cultural dissent. Although the conflict in Northern Ireland is not entirely or even primarily about religion, it is incomprehensible without an awareness of the historical religious divide between Protestants and Catholics in Irish culture.

Christian protests against the imposition of Shariah law triggered the 2000 Kaduna riots in Nigeria. In Iraq, Islamic fundamentalists bomb Christian churches. In Turkey, an Islamic country, strict laws limit who can be elected the ecumenical patriarch, the archbishop of Constantinople, the most important person in Orthodoxy. The Turkish requirement that he be subject to the authority of the Republic of Turkey and a citizen of Turkey considerably narrows the pool of available candidates within a shrinking Greek Orthodox community. The government has expropriated church property, and state control led to the closing in 1971 of the Orthodox seminary, the Theological School of Halki. Ironically, the Turkish laws leading to this situation were designed to limit Muslim radicals in the secular Turkish state. The gravity of this situation cannot be grasped apart from a knowledge of the role of the ecumenical patriarch within Orthodoxy.

The propaganda that accompanies political and religious conflict tends to demonize the opponent (religious allusion to the United States as Satan). The terrorist becomes the infidel (infidel meaning without religious faith). A cause becomes a crusade (allusion to the religious warfare when Christians attempted to regain the Holy Land, 10951291).

Basic religious knowledge is necessary to “get” religious references made in books, films or in politics. When President George W. Bush quoted the Bible in his 2001 inaugural address, saying, “When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side,” how many knew he was referring to the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan? How can one understand Martin Luther King’s comparison of himself with Paul as someone imprisoned for his beliefs in his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” or the many biblical allusions in his speeches? Other literary masterpieces are incomprehensible without an appreciation of religious symbolism. How can one fully understand Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, the poetry of William Blake, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the plays of Shakespeare or Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick, to name but a few examples of literature imbued with religious themes or symbolism?

Religion also is pervasive in pop culture. The lead-in to the television series Desperate Housewives features an apple with flames fanning around the edges of the fruit. How many Americans grasp the religious symbolism in that image of Genesis, Eve, the fruit of the tree of good and evil, and the association of woman as temptress?

Religion is one of the major themes in the animated television series The Simpsons. An article published in 2009 in L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s official newspaper, praised The Simpsons for its “realistic” way of dealing with religion. The strongest religious influence on the movie Star Wars is, first, Taoist philosophy and, second, Zen Buddhism.

Some pop cultural icons raise questions that require religious analysis. Does Harry Potter draw kids to the occult as some Christian critics suggest? Gods, demons and the supernatural abound in the hit television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Is Buffy hostile to religion or hospitable to it?

Without religious literacy, how can one separate truth from fiction in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? The best-seller draws on Gnostic scriptures and modern reinterpretations of those works, as well as an alternate history of Christian faith similar to the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. Brown’s book suggests that the historical Jesus married Mary Magdalene, had one or more children, and that those children or their descendants emigrated to what is now southern France, where they eventually became the Merovingian Dynasty. Although professional historians have debunked the thesis, how many Americans learn the Christian narrative from Dan Brown rather than the Bible?

How can someone who hears the scriptures proclaimed every Sunday not know that the writers of the four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? What does religious commitment mean apart from beliefs that have specific content regarding the nature of God, what is received in Eucharistic communion and how one accesses salvation? Knowledge about one’s own faith is indispensable for meaningful adherence to it.

According to the Pew study, Jews, Mormons and atheists/agnostics have the highest level of religious knowledge. They are followed by evangelical Protestants, then by those who have no religion in particular and mainline Protestants. Catholics come in last. How can this be?

Obviously there has been a breakdown in catechesis in the churches, but these statistics may also point to a more pervasive secular culture where religious adherence may be more nominal. Minority groups, as well as groups and individuals who take a stance against religion, seem to have a better religious knowledge than groups that were traditionally more dominant. This suggests complaisance rather than committed enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, this ignorance does not bode well for the continued vitality of the traditional churches.

The big question we have to ask ourselves is whether religion is a sideshow to political issues or intrinsic to the identity and motivations of the world’s people. Is the answer to religious intolerance religious indifference? How do we negotiate the conflict of multiple religious absolutes in a pluralist world? How do we re-engage young people in learning about and appreciating the deep, wonderful and complex histories of world religions? For that matter, how can we engage them in being more knowledgeable about the religious tradition that they themselves personally embrace? These are difficult but important questions for our time. Whatever the answers, and whether they issue from the perspective of a believer or a non-believer, they require religious literacy.

Dr. Susan K. Wood, S.C.L., Grad ’86, professor and chair of the Department of Theology, serves on the U.S. Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue, U.S. Roman Catholic-Orthodox Theological Consultation, conversation between the Roman Catholic Church and Baptist World Alliance, and International Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue. Most of her writing explores the connections between ecclesiology and sacramental theology.


Comment by Albert J Jarvis at Jan 25 2011 03:22 pm
Very interesting. As a Catholic I see this all the time. Not only are we as Caholics failing, but our entire system of federal politics is failing because of the lack of the virtue of justice by our so called leaders, Republican of Democrat, who constantly violate the eighth commandment (for Christians & our Jewish brethen+the rules of good conduct by all men) by their campaign lies and distortions of truth in their promises. I am 88 years old and have simply put my trust in the goodness of God that something will change. Will it happen?
Comment by Juergen Bruckner at Jan 25 2011 03:30 pm
Did anyone try to understand why Catholic's came out last in this pole? I have taught 7th graders religious education from Catholic textbooks for over 25 years. While there has been a greater emphasis on teaching Bible facts, I think Catholics have been taught that God has talked to his leaders for the last 2 milleniums with new insights (doctrine) which must be taught, whereas (some) Protestants seem to think that God quit sending messages after Jesus' ascension. That certainly would make Bible facts easier to recall than the Catholic's learning about rosaries, corporal and spiritual works of mercy, seven sacraments, post Jesus saints etc.
Comment by Liz O'Connor at Jan 26 2011 07:17 am
None of this was surprising to me. I worked in my parish RCIA for a number of years and the first candidate I was paired with was completely innocent of religion. The hardest thing for her to get her head around was Jesus' Jewishness! We who are blessed with knowledge of faith have a responsibility to share it, but are often too diffident to discuss the subject even on a cultural level.
Comment by Mary Esterhammer-Fic at Jan 25 2011 08:34 pm
In 2004, my 6th grade daughter announced that her class would recite the shahada ("There is no God but Allah...") in Arabic and English, at an upcoming assembly. This was in a Chicago PUBLIC school, less than 2% Muslim. The shahada is a statement of conversion, and is tantamount to being baptized. I eventually convinced the school to use a more benign example of Muslim culture. Still, I was amazed that many parents, most of them Christian, were so ignorant of their own religious heritage that they were willing to let their children publicly renounce their faith in order to be "politically correct.". Learn about your religion...and learn about threats to it, too.
Comment by Luke Ferris at Jan 26 2011 10:05 pm
Excellent article. I'd like to see some research on practicing Catholics versus inactive Catholics. I'd also like to hear if Prof. Wood agrees with Stephen Prothero's book on this subject? He argues that the focus on religion as morality is the cause of much illiteracy.
Comment by Ron Kasprzak at Jan 30 2011 01:24 pm
Dear Susan,
What I am to write will be controversial. I graduated from Marquette in 1972. Born and raise a Roman Catholic. Studied the various world religions.

The world religions offer many ways to God. Many take the easiest or a hard approach while many rely on family tradition. But the Bible clearly teaches that His Spirit will bear witness with our spirit. Should we not pray for that?

Your article was so open ended but served its purpose of inspiring all to dig deep into the mysteries of God. Religiously literate is only half of the equation. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach us and delve into the depths of the Father's desires for us.

When Jesus died on the cross, the temple curtain was torn in two, opening the way to Father directly, through Jesus our mediator between Father and man.

As an end to this comment, Jesus said to be a disciple of His, we would have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Him. Where is that happening? I certainly can admit that I am not personally doing this.

The Bible is God's truth to mankind. All should read it to understand God's purposes of creating this world and mankind and the future events that will take place.

May God bless you with peace and understanding.

Comment by Maximus Aurelius, Law '08 at Feb 08 2011 10:37 am
Great article. I strongly concur with Dr. Wood's message encouraging a wide and deep religious literacy, especially as it pertains to the comprehension of religious allusions in speech and literature.

One aspect of the Pew study that I think deserves more attention in this context is that fact that atheists performed better on the test of religious literacy than the adherents of any creed. How are we to absorb the fact that those who seem to be the most literate on religion are the least willing to profess faith in it?

An interesting follow-up study might be a further investigation of the strong positive correlation between religious literacy and the lack of a belief in God or gods.

One hypothesis is that a careful reading of religious texts, as well as a comprehensive comparative investigation among the several world religions (which would necessarily result in an individual being measurably more literate on these subjects), could in fact be the cause of a decreased likelihood to assert a belief in God or gods.
Comment by Jeanne Carley, Jour. '58 at Feb 08 2011 11:54 am
Good article. But after reading four recently published books on the Crusades, I felt that Marquette should have offered us courses relating to these events and also about the Inquisition. As a student from 1954-58, there were no such courses so I have always felt a gap in my education. Nor did I learn about it in history classes in my Catholic girls high school or at Marquette. We should have been better prepared. Hopefully the curriculum has changed to correct this deficiency. There was more to the Crusades than the years listed; one book focuses mainly on the Spanish and Portuguese to control the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa and the constant battles of the Ottoman Turks to recapture their lands. No wonder the Catholics are lacking in knowledge of their own history.
Comment by Tyler Gregory at Feb 08 2011 01:14 pm
Very interesting article, I have to agree that often times Catholics appear to be uneducated when it comes to other worldly religions. I am no exception to this, but I recognize it and am greatly interested in pursuing the study of other forms of religion.
Comment by Pearl Ganges at Feb 18 2011 12:26 pm
I am doing some research about westerners ignorance of India and Indian religious, especially in the 1960's. Does anyone know of any good resources on this? Thanks.
Comment by Tm Low at Apr 14 2011 08:58 pm
Sometimes people are surprised when I mention that I studied theology of th reformation and Jewish thought and practice at Marquette. In many ways these classes are touchstones for the value of a Liberal arts education as embodied by Marquette's core curriculum (yeah, from the late 80s). Also, they have made me a strong conributor at Wednesday night publ trivia at the Wilde Rover in Kirkland, WA.
Comment by Tm Low at Apr 14 2011 09:00 pm
Sometimes people are surprised when I mention that I studied theology of th reformation and Jewish thought and practice at Marquette. In many ways these classes are touchstones for the value of a Liberal arts education as embodied by Marquette's core curriculum (yeah, from the late 80s). Also, they have made me a strong conributor at Wednesday night pub trivia at the Wilde Rover in Kirkland, WA.
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