Dark Bilious Vapors

But how could I deny that I possess these hands and this body, and withal escape being classed with persons in a state of insanity, whose brains are so disordered and clouded by dark bilious vapors....
--Rene Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation I

Home » Archives » January 2005 » Interesting paradox....

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01/12/2005: Interesting paradox....


It's often been noted that the United States is probably the most religious nation in the first world. But, ironically, it may also be the first world nation that is most ignorant of religion, both its own and others. So observes Stephen Prothero of Boston University, in an LA Times op-ed (LAT requires free registration, or use BugMeNot):

The sociologist Peter Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country in the world and Sweden the least, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Not anymore. With a Jesus lover in the Oval Office and a faith-based party in control of both houses of Congress, the United States is undeniably a nation of believers ruled by the same.

Things are different in Europe, and not just in Sweden. The Dutch are four times less likely than Americans to believe in miracles, hell and biblical inerrancy. The euro does not trust in God. But here is the paradox: Although Americans are far more religious than Europeans, they know far less about religion.

In Europe, religious education is the rule from the elementary grades on. So Austrians, Norwegians and the Irish can tell you about the Seven Deadly Sins or the Five Pillars of Islam. But, according to a 1997 poll, only one out of three U.S. citizens is able to name the most basic of Christian texts, the four Gospels, and 12% think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. That paints a picture of a nation that believes God speaks in Scripture but that can't be bothered to read what he has to say.
Though, frankly, I'm compelled to wonder how many of those 12% are merely channeling Ted Logan while pulling the pollster's leg. But this ignorance has unfortunate practical consequences nowadays:
When Americans debated slavery, almost exclusively on the basis of the Bible, people of all races and classes could follow the debate. They could make sense of its references to the runaway slave in the New Testament book of Philemon and to the year of jubilee, when slaves could be freed, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Today it is a rare American who can engage with any sophistication in biblically inflected arguments about gay marriage, abortion or stem cell research.

Since 9/11, President Bush has been telling us that "Islam is a religion of peace," while evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy's son) has insisted otherwise. Who is right? Americans have no way to tell because they know virtually nothing about Islam. Such ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads.
A difficult problem, and one without an easy solution, alas. Prothero suggests that religious education in the schools--not the kind of religious indoctrination we got in Catholic school (for example), but comparative religious studies--is the solution:
How did this happen? How did one of the most religious countries in the world become a nation of religious illiterates? Religious congregations are surely at fault. Churches and synagogues that once inculcated the "fourth R" are now telling the faithful stories "ripped from the headlines" rather than teaching them the Ten Commandments or parsing the Sermon on the Mount (which was delivered, as only one in three Americans can tell you, by Jesus). But most of the fault lies in our elementary and secondary schools.

In a majority opinion in a 1963 church-state case (Abington vs. Schempp), Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark wrote, "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion and its relationship to the advance of civilization." If so, the education of nearly every public school student in the nation is woefully inadequate.

Because of misunderstandings about the 1st Amendment, religious studies are seldom taught in public schools. When they are, instruction typically begins only in high school and with teachers not trained in the subtle distinction between teaching religion (unconstitutional) and teaching about religion (essential).
The problem though, which Prothero glosses over, is that the Newly Resurgent Christian Right (justifiably seen by many as a Christian Taliban) isn't going to settle for the essential teaching about religion--they are going to insist on teaching religion. Hell, they want to teach religion in science classes, insisting on the teaching of "creation science" (or the watered down, pseudo-scientific variant, "intelligent design").

Len on 01.12.05 @ 08:08 PM CST



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