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Getting Religion Wrong

Getting Religion Wrong

In 1970, as remembered in a story I've (too?) often told, for my sins I became associate dean at a Divinity School. Dean Joseph Kitagawa, scholar supreme and human being to match, did not like to raise money – so he equipped me with a tin cup. As I headed out on the trail, I posed this question to a colleague: "Given all the world's problems, on what grounds dare I ask for money to fund the graduate study of religion?" Answer: "On the same grounds as those for undertaking college-level sex education. Sex, if you get it wrong, is very dangerous. So is religion."

The United States, in foreign affairs, has mainly been "getting it wrong," and its citizens often "get it wrong" in human affairs. "Wrong?" Blame malice, exploitation, apathy, or ignorance. Stephen Prothero's justifiably well-reviewed new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn't, documents what everyone who is literate has to know: that, as the USA Today front page story on the book shouts along with the Boston University author, "Americans get an 'F' in religion." Read the book and the responses and you might conclude that USA Today is guilty of grade inflation – and this in a nation that banners its religiosity around the world, puzzles post-Christian Europe, and invokes deity as benedictor, mentor, and justifier-of-deeds.

Let Prothero document citizen shortcomings, as he well does, then ponder the sources of the ignorance and – gloom permitted here – expect little reform. The fault is not just that of "secular humanists" or "liberals," many of whom are actually and actively in the camp of those who think that teaching "about" religion ought to be in curricula. Fault often lies with religious folk who agitate for the teaching "of" religion – their religion – as normative and exemplary. Fault also lies with some tone-deaf academics, including Harvard faculty who ruled up and then ruled down religion requirements in the curriculum. And you can further fault the Rip Van Winkles who have been napping all these years since religion came to be central in world affairs.

Since Prothero makes his living teaching and writing in this field (as did I) his book could sound like special pleading for a discipline in higher education, though "lower education" is often the real front line. Responsible academics in religion know that they have shortcomings in getting points across, too. They know, as Prothero does, that minds storing facts about religions – one's own and that of others – do not produce sainthood or heroism. In the practice of faiths, according to the best teachers and guides among them, it is not always "what you know" but "Who you know."

But, taking off from Prothero, it is wise to ask not merely how many things one needs to know about Sikhism or Zoroastrianism – or Islam and Christianity, for that matter. What is needed is awareness of and knowledge about what goes on in the mentalities and policies that favor or disfavor religion, so that we may learn to discern, and to gain at least basic understanding about where to seek and what we might possibly find, if we want to move beyond religious illiteracy.

Get religion wrong? It remains true that "getting it wrong," as is our tendency, hurts religion and endangers world societies. Getting it right would not mean saving souls or making sad hearts glad, but it would enhance academic and civil life.


Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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