Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Religion in America

I just finished Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -and Doesn't; before that, I watched a terrifying documentary called Jesus Camp. The friend I watched it with seemed to think I would find it humorous. This is yet another in a long list of examples of how differently we see the world, the last one being when I made her watch Crazy in Alabama and told her it was a comedy about a woman who cuts off her abusive husband's head with an electric turkey slicer and takes off for Hollywood -and she came away from the movie telling people that it was drama about the death of a black boy and how that influenced the Civil Rights movement in one community. We were both right, but she was still pretty upset with me.

Technically, if you really want to know what every American needs to know and doesn't, it may behoove you to skip to the glossary of religious terms in the back of the book. It takes up about a good hundred pages, and is comprehensive along with being fairly clinical. The first half of the book, though, is a history of why we no longer have the religious knowledge we used to as a nation. I found it to be an interesting problem until around page 80, and then I was tired of learning how Protestantism was weeded out of public centers of learning. Because that is pretty much what it describes, as nothing other than Protestantism has ever been taught in public schools. It is an interesting history, but it still describes how we lost one type of religious literacy instead of explaining why more than a cursory knowledge of Islam and/or Buddhism and/or Judaism and/or Hinduism is required in today's society. For the most part, Prothero ignores the argument as to why this is important after telling us that it is.

And the information about what we do not know is shocking, as is the reason we don't know it any more. His argument -as the first half of the book does contain one- is for teaching religion in schools; not indoctrinating students, but instructing them in the lessons of many religious texts. One of the interesting facts Prothero exposes is that the secularists have had less to do with a decrease in faith-based knowledge than evangelicals have; that evangelicals focus on a personal relationship with Jesus instead of a knowledge of him and the text he is present in have harmed our religious literacy -especially the religious literacy of the actual evangelicals. Prothero goes on to say that when having faith in the Bible, rather than knowing what the Bible said, became the premiere expression of religiosity in America, we lost hold of that thread. He expounds by saying "our collapsing religion into 'values' and 'values' into sexual morality, which in turn functions via an odd sort of circular reasoning as proxy for religiosity. At least in popular parlance, what makes religious folks religious today is not so much that they believe in Jesus' divinity or Buddhism's Four Noble Truths but that they hold certain moral positions on bedroom issues such as premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion".

I genuinely agree with him that an in-depth knowledge of religion is necessary in life, both for understanding literature and its myriad of references to sacred texts but also in history and current political events. How could we ever hope to understand the problems of the Middle East if we do not fully comprehend the differences between a Sunni and a Shi'ite, and what the historical tensions between the two groups are? How can we navigate issues between China and Tibet if we don't recognize not only China's views of Tibet from a geographical standpoint but also Tibet's views of why it is a separate nation? I even almost agree that the Bible should have a separate course than just being inserted with a generalized course in religious study. But I also disagree with statements like "Public school Bible courses should not focus on Biblical criticism. They should not try to prove that Moses did not write the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or that the Gospel of Matthew contradicts the Gospel of John". Sure it should. If the Bible is being taught as literature, as an influential text, as the basis for many religious divides and issues throughout time, we absolutely must address some of the more overt issues with the text -especially when the text disagrees with itself. It could be as easy as referencing a book like The Four Witnesses. But not commenting on the book, just presenting it as-is, isn't really teaching anything -including comprehension or critical study. I'm not advocating pointing out where the Bible or any other holy book fails, but I do think that it is equally unhelpful to teach any sort of literature or history without critique as it is to criticize and debunk too much. There is a fine line there, and we need to learn to walk it.

All of this leads me to Jesus Camp. The Evangelicals of the documentary fulfill in every way Prothero's critique of modern, religiously amnesiac Christians. These are Christians concerned with "feeling" Jesus, with imparting lessons about piety and modesty and pro-life sentiments all without actually seeming to examine the very book their worlds revolve around. There are gasp-worthy scenes, like when a little girl walks up to some African-Americans and seemingly doubts their answer of "heaven" when she questions them as to where they think they'll go when they die. "I bet they're Muslims" she says to her equally young companion as the two walk away. There are diatribes against Harry Potter. There is the passing around of a tiny plastic fetus, there is speaking in tongues as the Holy Spirit takes hold of them. The little girl who thought the African-Americans were Muslims talks at one point where God likes to hang his hat; apparently He doesn't like "dead" churches, where there are sermons and things of that nature. He likes the excitement and euphoria of this type of church. Which only goes to show that God actually doesn't want people reading His book. He just wants them to believe in His book.

That kind of thinking is all sorts of dangerous, and it is the thinking that permeates every facet of learning. It is an anti-intellectual bent that is running rampant in American society today. And it is something that we need to begin reversing. Faith in one's heart without knowledge of one's religion is no faith to have. Interacting with the world while having no knowledge of the historical and religious implications of those interactions is idiotic. For those reasons, education in those areas is beyond necessary. Even those with no religion should think so, because as long as religion is a dominant force in much of the world it is our duty to try and comprehend not only what it is but why it is so.

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