At Commencement, a Call for Religious Literacy
By PETER STEINFELS
The New York Times
May 12, 2007
And so, members of the graduating class of 2007, we’ve come almost to the end of this commencement ceremony and of these brief commencement remarks.
We’ve told some predictable jokes about your imminent unemployment and your student loans. We’ve thanked your parents, praised your professors and stated the obvious about the world you are entering - that it is full of dangers, full of opportunities, full of wonders, misery, love, beauty, surprises and violence.
It is also full of religion.
There is some question whether your education has prepared you for this latter reality, which is, of course, very much related to the former ones.
For a long time, quite a few people assumed that a major point of higher education was to put religion behind you. Eventually, it was also assumed, the world would do the same. Things haven’t worked out that way.
Just what do college graduates know about religion? The data is sparse. But Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, has assembled a rather bleak picture from available polls as well as his own experience and that of other professors.
It is a huge scandal, Dr. Prothero writes in his recently published book, “Religious Literacy” (HarperSanFrancisco), that “every year colleges provide bachelor’s degrees to students who cannot name the first book of the Bible, who think that Jesus parted the Red Sea and Moses agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane, who know nothing about what Islam teaches about war and peace, and who cannot name one salient difference between Hinduism and Buddhism.”
Admittedly, graduation day may not be the best moment to suggest a new reading assignment, but you might check out Dr. Prothero’s book on religious literacy, which is subtitled, “What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn’t.” You might even try the basic religious literacy quiz on Pages 27 and 28 that he has given his students, who mostly flunk it. You might peruse the 85-page “Dictionary of Religious Literacy” that he offers as religious “information U.S. citizens need to make sense of their country and the world.”
No doubt, your college years have brought you well beyond the high school students who think Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife, and Joan of Arc was married, naturally, to Noah. But how do you compare to the adults impassioned to have the Ten Commandments displayed in courthouses but unable to name half of them? Can you name the Five Pillars of Islam or who delivered the Sermon on the Mount (no, not Billy Graham, Dr. Prothero has had to point out) or a single sacred text of Hinduism?
Personally, Dr. Prothero suspects that “faith without knowledge is dead.” (Presumably you recognize that as a play on the phrase that troubled Martin Luther in the Epistle of James, “faith without works is dead.” Presumably you know about Martin Luther and why this troubled him.) But the purpose of a plea on behalf of religious literacy, he repeatedly insists, is not religious but civic.
“In today’s world it is irresponsible to use the word ‘educated’ to describe high school or college graduates who are ignorant of the ancient stories that continue to motivate the beliefs and behaviors of the overwhelming majority of the world’s population,” he writes. “In a world as robustly religious as ours, it is foolish to imagine that such graduates are equipped to participate fully in the politics of the nation or the affairs of the world.”
Having just completed all your requirements for graduation, you might be interested in Dr. Prothero’s views on the matter. He proposes that all public high schools require one course on the Bible and one on the world’s major religions. He proposes that colleges require all students to take one course in religious studies. He thinks that this can be done without proselytizing and fully in accord with the Constitution. (Incidentally, one of the things distressing him is how few college students can identify the First Amendment’s two clauses dealing with religion.)
If high schools do not do their job, college should fill in, he says, and he is not fazed by the idea of making this mandatory. “We do have math requirements,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “There’s a sense that we have certain non-negotiables.”
And remember, he also said, “my book is called ‘Religious Literacy,’ not ‘Religious Fluency.’ I’m setting a low bar.” It was not necessary for President Bush to have known the precise difference between Sunnis and Shias, he said, but merely to have known that there was a difference and “that it might be important to know more.”
What about atheism? Does religious literacy require the study of nonbelief? Certainly, Dr. Prothero said. At least in the West, he explained, atheism is part of the religious conversation: You cannot understand religion in the modern West without taking atheism into account, and you cannot understand atheism without understanding its religious context.
Perhaps Dr. Prothero overestimates what can be communicated in a fact-based course in religious studies. Perhaps he underestimates some of the important fruits of the religious diversity that you graduates have enjoyed in your dorms and classrooms.
It may be essential to know the basic doctrines, practices and stories of the world’s great faiths - and of atheism, too. But it is also essential to know how these believers and nonbelievers feel and think, and think about what others think about them - the kind of knowledge that requires imagination, empathy or, what college often provides, real encounters.
Before this commencement day ends, graduating class of 2007, you will surely be asked to contribute to the alumni fund. But one hopes that as alumni you also have something to contribute to this fresh discussion of what a college-educated citizen should be expected to know about religion.
One thing is clear, Dr. Prothero says enthusiastically, “We have a public conversation going.” So, class of 2007, join in. And godspeed.