walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Don't Buy Books with the word Literacy in the Title: a few complaints about _Religious Literacy_

Basically, you're buying a book about Foo, where Foo doesn't mean what you think it does, what the author thinks it does, or, really, anything at all.

Literacy is a word that has ambitions, primarily to distinguish one group of people from another and then flog the losers to become more like the winners. The preferred tactic goes something like this:

Once upon a time, almost everyone was literate.
Now, only a tiny fraction of people is literate.
You should take more classes, so you can become literate.

Hidden in this argument is the slippery definition of Foo.

Foo in the first sentence is, Can Write Own Name as Stunt when Married.
Foo in the second sentence is, Can Fill in a Heinous Government Form to Satisfaction of Cruel and Whimsical Officials in a Country Whose Primary Language is Different from One's Primary Language. Or, in some cases, as ridiculous as, Has Attended Accredited Schools for a Minimum of N Years (where N is perpetually increasing).

I bring this up because I stupidly bought _Religious Literacy_ by Stephen Prothero. It was being pushed by, IIRC, Dale McGowen (spelling may be wrong). I like what McGowen is selling (if you want your kids to avoid being hijacked by the Religious Fruits and Nuts in high school and beyond, you should make sure they know a butt load about God Crack before they get waylaid by the Savior's Posse), so I figured I'd give it a try. Alas, Prothero, having written a book with Literacy in the title, was bound to disappoint.

The most dangerous (as opposed to hilariously wrong-headed) part of Prothero's thinking (that I have thus far encountered) is found quite early -- before the beginning of Chapter 1:

"...it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the bloodletting in such places as Waco, Afghanistan and Iraq might have been avoided if we had understood a bit better our own religions traditions, and those of others"

I'll be fair, he does note immediately before this that people do sometimes kill each other because they understand each other, so he's not completely ignorant. But just as a for instance, I was a _whole_ lot more tolerant of, say, Mormons, before I got to know some fairly well. Once I actually got to know their history and read a good chunk of the D&C and the Book of Mormon, I didn't much care for them at all. Actually, that's a huge understatement. I don't want government suppression because that just makes this kind of stuff supperate and fester. What I want is for that kind of crap (along with being a JW) to be Not Okay. Sort of like drinking and driving, only even less cool.

Prothero isn't officially looking to stomp out religion. He wants people to be educated about religion so his solution is the standard one: make the kiddies take classes in the Subject Which We Are Disgracefully Ignorant Of in high school and college. This is a common solution to common problems. The fact that people continue to have trouble doing basic arithmetic, spelling, knowing simple things about history and grammar and so forth should have convinced people to Stop Advocating This as a Solution. If classes worked, we'd all be really un-ignorant by now, and yet, our ignorance knows no bounds, at least not for purposes of publishing more books saying, wow are we all stupid or what.

Even if we grant that religious knowledge might help (hell, it might), and that classes might somehow dispense this knowledge (wonders will never cease, TAMO, etc.), I really _hate_ it when people say crap like this:

"High school and college graduates who have not taken a single course about religion cannot be said to be truly educated."


Because, after all, there's not a chance they could, say, have learned it on their own? This is the Worst of the Worst of School Will Fix Ignorance. Not only does Prothero think a class or classes can fix this problem, he has now, literally, asserted that without such a class, you can't be truly educated.

All right. Deep breath. Maybe he's a sloppy thinker. He uses the word "literacy", so we _know_ that. He's right to recognize that if you understand a lot about religion, a lot of history gets a whole lot more interesting. But the same can be said about a lot of things. If you know a ton about Restoration theater, for example, that line about regretting having only one life to give for one's country no longer sounds like a surprisingly eloquent Murrican Hero. It sounds like someone quoting from the moral equivalent of a TV Drama of the era. There are a _lot_ of quotes from our Revolution that are actually quotes from the theater. Should we, then, all be taking Theater classes? (Hey, I'm all over that. That would be cool!)

It's one thing, tho, to catch the nuance. It's wholly another to think that the light you see reflected in the glass is the reality itself. He doesn't flesh out his dispensational premillenialism theory of software companies and Y2K, but I was paying a _lot_ of attention at the time and believe me I know how both bad parenting practices and whack job religions feed into a sense of impending doom and how that can latch onto a thing like Y2K with great joy. At the _same_ time, I know enough about software and business dependencies to recognize that boy, howdy, not doing Y2K remediation was in fact enough to put some people out of business. So focusing on the dispensational premillenialism, while entertaining, is not the meat of the nut, imo.

I'm only partway through the book, but thus far, I haven't seen anything to indicate that religion should be treated any more seriously than Theater (history of theater, whatever). Yup, influences rhetoric of the day. But you can't find a time in the past when people Knew Their Theater (oh, leave the Greeks out of it, okay?) and you can't find a time in the past when people Knew Their Religion. Going around asking people the 10 Commandments just indicates that you don't realize that the Decalogue is only the Decalogue in one of its multiple incarnations, just like the Creation story appears in a couple spots and matching the two up is a significant theological puzzle that people have been working on. For a while. I agree that people _should_ know what happened with Lot, his wife, their daughters, their vistors, the local citizenry and the deal Abraham struck with God. But I think if we all _did_ know about this, it would not contribute to world peace, better understanding of each other, or anything like this. What we'd really get is a whole lot of ripe examples of Denial in Action. Which is fun, but not productive. When Prothero acts like religion is somehow found more in texts than in the present-day community of believers, he is either being an academic, a jackass, or a Protestant and whichever is the case, he needs to stop if his goal is for people to better understand themselves, each other, and their patterns of belief.

Because at the end of the day, whatever the Pope may say, Catholics are people who believe they are Catholic, and recognize each other as Catholic. And if they don't know what the 7 Sacraments are, and they can't tell you the 10 Commandments, and they don't know the 7 Deadlies or whatever, then probably those things are not what being a Catholic today is all about. If you're really interested in studying what _is_ (as opposed to what you think _should_ be), you'd quit using your damn quizzes to make people feel bad, and start using your quizzes to find out what Catholics think makes them Catholic. I, for one, would much rather read that than this.
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