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Posted: Friday, April 6, 2007 10:00 pm

Title: Religious Literacy: "What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn't"

Author: Stephen Prothero

Publisher: HarperCollins, San Francisco, March 2007

Price: $24.95

Synopsis: Author Stephen Prothero presents the case for teaching religion in American public schools as a way of reversing the religious illiteracy of Americans. As a Professor of Religious Studies (currently the chair of the religion department at Boston University), Prothero discovered early in his teaching career that his students have a minimal understanding of world religions, and know even less about their own religion. For example, only 10 percent of American teenagers polled were able to name all five major world religions (15 percent were unable to name any religions). This is not limited to just students, but Americans in general. The United States is a very religious nation, but few understand their religious beliefs and religious illiteracy is shockingly high when compared to countries world-wide. Even denomination based classes (Sabbath schools, Sunday school, catechism studies, etc.) are criticized for failing to effectively teach the concepts and history of their beliefs.

Prothero asks how US citizens can participate in public life without knowing something about Christianity, without understanding world religions. This book provides historical insight into the role religion has played in government, public schools, and communities. The argument is made for the return of religious studies to be included in the school curriculum (not to be confused with teaching a particular religion). Prothero suggests a course covering the seven great religious tradition of the world, including the origins, founder(s), and how religious traditions are being adapted into modern-day life. To help the reader assess their own knowledge, religious literacy quiz is provided as well as a dictionary of religious literacy which is a helpful resource on the seven major world religions.

Why did you choose this book? I saw the author interviewed on a couple of cable news shows, and couldn't believe that Americans were so ignorant about their personal beliefs. How many really understand the differences between Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics; or between Sunnis and Shites? What is the difference between the beliefs and lifestyle of a Sikh, Muslim and Hindu? Most couldn't answer where Jesus was born. I found myself quizzing my friends and family and was just as surprised by the results!

Author's Strengths: Prothero does not preach or promote any religion. He describes the history and how religions impacted the shaping of the U.S. as well as how personal knowledge and religious study has declined over the past century. He makes an effective argument for religious studies in school.

Carolyn Salcedo

How did this book move you? This book goes beyond teaching tolerance. The case is made to educate ourselves, to improve personal understanding and respecting the differences between religions. It does not provide an extensive background into all religions, but focuses upon the primary religions common within the United States. It makes you ask questions about your own beliefs and the traditions of others. This is a great book for atheists, agnostics, and religious individuals of all backgrounds.

Carolyn Salcedo is the librarian's associate at the Lodi Public Library. Each week, a member of the library staff reviews a recent book release for Lodi Living. Reviews are archived at



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