walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Religious Literacy_, Stephen Prothero (kindle), the Official Review

Subtitled: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't

A couple (perhaps a few) years ago, I ran across a book about raising your kids atheist/agnostic. It was a lot of essays musing on why various people decided to do this, and describing the benefits. Later, the author put out a more how-to oriented book. I have read neither of these cover to cover and am not done with them, so I haven't reviewed them. When the second one came out, I went and checked out the author's blog and he was recommending some books, so I picked a few of them up on kindle and some related recommendations. The three I got were Plotz' _Good Book_, Lobdell's _Losing My Religion_ and Prothero's _Religious Literacy_. I attempted Prothero first. I tried really hard and blogged repeatedly about the failings of the book -- and barely made it 15% of the way through. After reading, and enjoying, Plotz' and Lobdell's books, I decided to give Prothero one last try, just so I could review it and be done with it.

I'm glad I took a break from it and I'm _really_ glad I read the other books. Returning to Prothero after the other two, the deep, unbridgeable flaws in Prothero's idea of a "problem" and the breathtaking irresponsibility of his "solution" are much clearer. Also, somewhere in there I was reading about the Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening, so it's also clearer that his perspective on history is deeply disturbing as well.

The short form of my review, thus, is this: it's a terrible book and you definitely should not read it. I had to give up when I got to the C's in the dictionary section at the back. His descriptions of Catholic Priest pedophilia and the Mormon doctrinal change that allowed blacks to become Mormons are a horrifyingly whitewashed shadow of ugly realities of religion. Those are two examples chosen for how easy the whitewash is to recognize. They aren't the only or the worst examples of Prothero's willingness to euphemise. (To be fair, I skimmed from the C's through the S's.)

Here's the long form:

Prothero is a professor. He'd like to expand his career opportunities by becoming a professor who teaches master classes to high school teachers about how to teach their mandatory high school courses in the Bible and World Religion. He'd specifically like to take time away from math (because, after all, we're not _really_ citizens if we don't know what he thinks we should know about religion, but calculus is useless). He couches some of this via indirection (using a quote from someone else on the math stuff), but struck me as disingenuous.

Prothero is a father who irregularly attends Lutheran church with his children (well, he says he takes them there -- maybe he just drops them off) and was appalled to discover his children are abysmally ignorant of the Bible (like, couldn't name a character other than Jesus in the Bible at age 8. Okay, came up with "Tom"). Rather than perceiving this as a lack he could resolve (in much the same way an avid rock climber who was appalled to realize her daughter couldn't even climb a ladder might undertake to spend more time clambering around on play equipment with her offspring), he thinks the public school system should Fix It.

His arguments in favor are shallow and unconvincing. You don't need to get all the puns in Shakespeare to get a laugh and some insight into human nature. And it's okay if you have to go spend your own time and energy digging for the rest of what's there. Similarly, it really does not matter if you know the story behind the word shibboleth (and honestly, if you do know the story, it's hard to use the word any more without cringing. I mean, genocide, much?). His ranking of what you do need to know is oriented strongly to what-movie-book-reference-would-you-get-if-you-knew-X. And, to be fair, I was personally offended at his explicit decision to exclude Sufism. By focusing on Islam purely in terms of high level ritual and whack job extremists, and excluding mystics (who, incidentally, would help us understand the value of Afghanistan, other than as a place to destroy expensive helicopters and the empires which send them), Prothero (probably unwittingly) failed to include Nasreddin. And we should all know about Nasreddin. First, those stories are damn funny. Second, they're extremely easy to connect to. And third, as near as I can tell, just about anyone raised Islamic seems to know about them, making them roughly equivalent to Aesop's fables in our cultural tradition. So, important. Seriously. Just ask UNESCO.

As a side note, I don't think Prothero thinks about mysticism. Or at least, doesn't think much of mysticism. Because he wrote an entire freaking book about what you need to know about religion without so much as mentioning it. (Okay, to be fair, I didn't make it all the way through. Please disprove my statement.)

I do think it would be helpful if more people read holy scripture and made an effort to understand the lives of believers. For one thing, the massive disconnect between the two would then illuminate the role played by accretions of interpretation. And once you _get_ the accretion thing, there's a very real chance you'll decide that given the choice between spending your entire life down this rabbit hole and, say, boning up on General Relativity, or taking up knitting, let's just say religion isn't likely to win. Some people will go for Prothero's Roots Tour argument -- hey, this will connect me to the People What Went Before. But most people never get the geneology bug and that's a whole lot more connecting-to-one's-ancestors than learning about (someone else's ancestors) religion. What I do _not_ understand is how Prothero (a cultural or ethnic Calvinist, as near as I can tell: not religious, but very enamored of detailed, mean-spirited doctrine that you can bludgeon someone with) failed to recognize _why_ doctrine hasn't had a real uprising in a few generations. All the people who get really wrapped up in The Rules of How Things Work have gone off to do something else (like, say, inorganic chemistry) since it became painfully apparent to anyone rule-oriented and adult that geology, genetics and assorted other endeavors were making it Damn Hard to make sense of what was in The Book (whichever book that might be). The people who stuck around were the ones who were capable of sifting through to find something useful -- the ecumenics, the why-can't-we-all-get-along crowd, the ones who can read about genocide and somehow reconcile that with being All Merciful and All Loving. The ones who aren't troubled when archaeology disconfirms the statements of facts of holy scripture. The ones with a much greater capacity to forgive than I ever want to have again.

If you read this review, and you read other reviews of Prothero, and you conclude that I'm being somehow unfair, and, furthermore, you bought E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curricula, then you might really like this book. But if you have no idea what Hirsch did, and if you know a lot about religion and aren't really that impressed with it (anymore, especially), give this one a pass. If you don't know much about religion and would like to learn, you could do the following:

(1) Get a copy of the Jewish Publication Society's Tanakh and read it. Then,
(2) Get a copy of the New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, and read the New Testament and any apocrypha which catch your eye. Then,
(3) Get a copy of Ahmed Ali's Al-Qur'an and read it.

Whenever you have a question, consult wikipedia, and chat up friends about whatever you are thinking about. Then,

(4) Start picking up things like the I Ching, the Tao teh Ching, the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, etc. Whatever catches your eye. The Panchatantra. And _definitely_ read any Mulla Nasreddin stories you run across.

You do that for about 10 years, and what with one thing and another, you will quickly discover that (a) you can at least figure out when you aren't understanding a reference and (b) where you might go to track it down and, best of all, (c) you will have actually _read_ the holy book of whoever you are talking to. Which they probably have not. While they still know what it is like to be a believer in that tradition (which you may or may not, depending on your life circumstances), they at least can't pull a well-the-blah-says... and shut down further conversation. That becomes your opener, in fact. "Oooh, don't you just love/hate/find horrifying/laugh your ass off when blah does yadda in the bing in order to prove..."
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