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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

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Strange Is American Religion, Stranger Is American Secularity

by Tom Moore, guest contributor

a cross to barephoto: Helen Sotiriadis/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

"Where did you read the Bible?” she asked. My friend Karin used to teach religion in a Swedish public elementary school, which is why her question made so much sense to her but so little sense to me.

“In Europe,” she explained, “we see the clips of your news commentators, we see your President getting sworn in on a Bible, we know America is intensely Christian. But where do you  learn it? Is it taught in the public schools, or do you just have really active Sunday schools, or what?” I quickly reassured her that in America, we keep religion out of the schools, since we are a secular nation.

“So where did you learn about Christianity?” she persisted. I had never considered the question before. I was raised Episcopalian, sort of, but my family rarely attended church. I only really started learning about Christianity when, having converted to Buddhism, I started reading books about world religions and would skim the chapter on Christianity on my way to the chapter on Buddhism. After I explained all this, Karin gave me a funny look and changed the subject. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about American religion.

American religion is very strange. At first, I thought my ignorance was an aberration, that I had been isolated in my private New England high school from the Bible-reading fervor that consumes America. The more I talked to my American friends, though — friends from all over the country — the more I began to get a sense for what I consider to be the unifying characteristic of nearly all American religion. It isn’t devoutness, or extremism, or reactionary zeal, but something much simpler: profound ignorance. One scholar, Stephen Prothero, summarizes the painful truth well in his book Religious Literacy:

“The paradox is this: Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can’t name the four Gospels, Catholics who can’t name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can’t name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.”

Prothero backs up these accusations with some quite compelling studies. To give just two examples: Only half of American adults could identify any one of the four Gospels, and only a third were able to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity.

Well, so what? Many of my non-religious friends would take that sort of statistic as a sign of the worldwide process of secularization and the weakening stranglehold of the religious right on American public life. For them, America’s religious illiteracy proves what Nietzsche wrote over a century ago: “God is dead.”

Well, is He? Because if so, Karin’s question is something of an anachronism: Why read the Bible if religion is on its way out the door? The notion that rationality and modernity have been hammering nails in religion’s coffin ever since the Enlightenment is what sociologists call the secularization thesis, and until very recently, the secularization thesis was pretty much taken for granted within academic circles.

The funny thing is, we don’t really have any evidence for it. We’ve been assuming for a long time that religion is dying, but the world around us seems to be demonstrating just the opposite. As Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, writes in his essay “The Desecularization of the World,” “The world today is massively religious, is anything but the secularized world that had been predicted (whether joyfully or despondently) by so many analysts of modernity.” He goes on to cite the two notable exceptions to this rule: Western Europe and academia.

Well, I guess God might be dead-ish for Western Europeans and academic elites, but Western Europe is a pretty small corner of the world, and even we academic types have to come down off the hill sometimes. When we do, we find ourselves crippled by an education system that pretends religion does not exist. As has become increasingly clear ever since September 11, religion is alive and kicking, and America is blundering its way through the 21st century, its education system trapped in the secularist fantasies of Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment pals.

This American secularity is strange, perhaps even stranger than American religion. We are okay forcing our children to swear a pledge of allegiance to one nation under God, but the vast majority of public schools aren’t okay teaching our children who Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha was. These figures may or may not have been divine (how should I know?), but let’s not for a second pretend they don’t matter. Every American should graduate from high school with at least a basic understanding of the five major world religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism), religions which most Americans today have a hard time even naming.

So where did you read the Bible? What about the Qur’an? The Bhagavad Gita? Let’s turn our public schools into a safe, critical environment where these texts, so foundational to the cultures of the world, can be read. Until we do, America shall remain crippled, staggering blindly through a world where religion, like it or not, still matters.

Tom MooreTom Moore is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences of Cornell University. He may be reached at tmoore@cornellsun.com. This commentary first appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun on September 27, 2011.

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