Editorial: Faith with knowledge

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2012

Which of the following is not one of the Ten Commandments?
a. Do not commit adultery.
b. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
c. Do not steal.
d. Keep the Sabbath holy.
e. All are in the Ten Commandments.
f. Don’t know.
Religion is on many minds on Easter Sunday. But how much knowledge do we have of religion? How many children think Easter is the celebration of a bunny’s birthday?
Christians and Jews should recognize the correct answer above as “b,” the oft-quoted Golden Rule. The question comes from a Christian Science Monitor quiz, “Are You Smarter Than an Atheist?” Fortunately, you don’t have to be a biblical scholar to exercise your faith. But the majority of people in this country know surprisingly little about it.
That is the premise of a book that came out several years ago and is worth mentioning today: “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t,” by Stephen Prothero, a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University.
According to surveys Prothero cites, only half of U.S. adults can name even one of the four gospels. Only a third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. And 10 percent believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Knowledge of other religions is even worse.
Prothero echoes an observation about modern theology that Dr. Will Willimon, a Methodist bishop from Alabama, expressed recently in a Salisbury talk about the future of mainline Protestantism. During the United States’ boom period after World War II, church membership mushroomed, but rapid growth came at a cost. “In conforming themselves to American culture, Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism had become little more than parallel paths up the mountain of the American dream,” Prothero says. The content of those religions as practiced in this country, he says, became empty, conformist, utilitarian, sentimental, individual and self-righteous.
That seems harsh, but it’s worth thinking about. What do we believe and why? How does religion fit into the global scheme of things?
As the geopolitical world turns, religion comes to the forefront over and over — in debates over prayer and marriage, in war and diplomacy, even in the business realm as American countries reach into new markets. Stumbling along blindly could be dangerous. To understand world and local events, most of us could benefit from better knowledge of the world’s religions, starting with our own.