Are American Kids Religiously Literate? Maybe not…

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What in the world is religious literacy? When I checked out Stephen Prothero’s book, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know and Doesn’t”, from the library, I was curious as to what the words “religious literacy” even meant! I had a hunch this was an important skill set that I didn’t yet have, so I turned on my reading lamp and dug in!

After a day or so reading, while looking for interesting events online I noticed that Stephen was going to be a guest lecturer at the Chautauqua Institute in July. Raised in the Christian religion, wondering how I could be so clueless as to what religious literacy was, and curious how important it was to my blog Swami Mommi, my family and my children’s education, I reserved my tickets. I was headed to Chautauqua to find out. Turns out, it is hugely important, not only for my immediate family, but for all the nations of the world!

Stephen himself is a religious academic, a professor at Boston University. In his book he makes the case that Americans are very unaware of the major religions of the world. He, rather jovially, points out that many know little about their own religion, let alone the 5 major religions of the world. Few could name the Ten Commandments, or identify the most important book for the religion of Islam or who Mohammed was (many thought it was Mohammed who founded Judaism). While most countries in Europe were found to be highly literate in religious knowledge, few Americans knew much at all. Interestingly, Europeans are educated on world religions as part of their early required education. Stephen thinks that maybe American children should be required to learn about world religions in school too.

So why is this so important for our American Kids? Because kids and adults alike should be able to have an educated discussion about religion, says Prothero. He is not advocating that religious education focus on one religion any more than another, however he says that knowledge about the various religions is vital, pointing out that religion, in its various forms, has a huge influence on our politics, from elections to international affairs.

Interestingly, Madeline Albright (who I once bumped into while shopping in Georgetown several years earlier!)  was at the Institute for a conversation about similar matters the day before the Prothero presentation. She made note that while she was Secretary of State, she had access to literally hundreds of special consultants on politics and economics; however, she had not one related to religion. One has to wonder how blindly we navigate international politics as a nation? Is there anything beyond the obsession of power and greed?

So what skills do our kids need? What skill will ensure that we are “religiously literate” adults?  Stephen in his Chautauqua presentation listed several aspects of this skill, the first of which was knowledge and the second being an ability to use the knowledge to get a real feel for what it might be like to experience that religion; experiential knowledge of being an observant follower of another faith. Finally, he talks about having knowledge enough to question, peacefully.

After the presentation there was a question and answer session. One women asked if he could comment on how much the attitude of “my religion is right” affects peaceful dialogue. He said that in Christianity and Islam, the idea that there is “only one religion” does exist; however, in most other world religions, he stated that this idea of “one” religion is right” does not exist. For example, Buddhists actually try to get rid of all beliefs as part of their religion, even the belief of “one religion as the right and only religion”. He is hopeful that peaceful dialogues are possible.

And I think he is right. I find when I am educated on anything, I am less defensive. I think that our children deserve the chance to be religiously literate, to have peaceful dialogues as they grow, to make educated statements and draw educated conclusions.

So here’s to you, Stephen Prothero! Thanks to your work, there will be one little 6 year old who can hold her weight when it comes to “religious literacy” and one family who isn’t going to stop learning about world religions any time soon.

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