faithsymbolscopy.gifBetween surfing a lot of blogs lately, reading lots of articles and other types of “religious news” pieces, and my own day-to-day work with teaching religion and religious studies, I come across a lot of stuff, some of which leaves me scratching my head, some that leaves me shaking it in disbelief, and, occasionally, some that permits me to nod it, either in agreement or in sleepy boredom.

Two pieces that fall into the “nod” category recently ran across my desk (or, more accurately, my Thinkpad screen). One is USA Today’s piece that reviews Stephen Prothero’s new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t, available in bookstores tomorrow. The other is Martin Marty’s short little “op-ed” in today’s Sightings, out of the University of Chicago Divinity School. Marty’s article points out that the US “gets religion wrong” across the board, and he does not simply limit this to politicians. Marty calls out the secular humanists and politicians, but he is fully aware that dedicated, committed religious folks are every bit as part of the failure to get religion “right:” “Fault often lies with religious folk who agitate for the teaching ‘of’ religion – their religion – as normative and exemplary.” He goes on to note that “fault also lies with some tone-deaf academics, including Harvard faculty who ruled up and then ruled down religion requirements in the curriculum. And you can further fault the Rip Van Winkles who have been napping all these years” [note to Marty: many of them are still sound asleep, if not entirely comatose] “since religion came to be central in world affairs.” Marty knows as well as I do that there has scarcely ever been a time in history where religion has not been “central in world affairs,” but his point is well-taken. The general religious public, as much as the politicians, the media, clergy and other religious leaders, and academics are getting an F in religion, which is where Cathy Lynn Grossman’s USA Today article, “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” comes in. Grossman’s review of Prothero’s new book points out what many academics in the study of religion already know to a certain degree, namely, that religious ignorance is a major problem for the US, and not least in terms of national security. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and Grossman gives enough quotes from it to get a sense of the implications of “bombing” the religion test: “If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they’re both Muslim, and you’ve been told that Islam is about peace, you won’t understand what’s happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it’s so? If you want to be involved, you need to know what they’re saying. We’re doomed if we don’t understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can’t outsource this to the demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda” (emphasis mine).

Here’s the rub, and I’m wondering if Prothero will address it in the book. Religious rhetoric is always political rhetoric. When Group A fears that its particular identity or worldview or ethical code is under assault by Groups B-Z, the Religious Rhetoric comes out. The thing is that Americans are bombing the test and failing the grade in the subject, so that the religious rhetoric being employed is ineffectual at best and downright dangerous at its (literally) terrifying and terrorizing worst. Rather than provide a forum for edifying debate, rhetorical ignorance, especially from the mouths of sophists like John Shelby Spong, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Sam Hill, and of politicians and influential media personalities generally, sets the stage for a demonizing condemnation based completely on falsehoods, lies, half-truths, and misunderstandings, either willful or unintentional, all to ensure that “we” are ok, even if “we” are not necessarily in positions of power and influence. When we think we’re threatened, we need a scapegoat, and that scapegoat has had many faces.

The cure for religious ignorance isn’t religious or cultural relativism, but neither is it more indoctrination. It also matters little whether the individual believes in God or not or whether he or she is a committed and active member of a religious community. God’s existence isn’t the issue here, and neither is the argument that “religion” is historically more responsible for the world’s violence than any other factor and, accordingly, should be done away with. Religion is not going anywhere, and this is true regardless of whether God really exists or not. Rather than spend our time focusing on all the differences between “our” religion and “their” religion and using those as points of attack, we should be figuring out what the similarities are between us and what our mutual concerns are, both spiritually and “earthly,” and learning how each religious tradition addresses those concerns using their particular cultural expressions from their own wells of tradition. Then, and only then, can we start a dialog that discusses differences without demonizing the Other. Contrary to the popular expressions of relativistic religious pluralism, religions are not all saying the same thing. Religious traditions, including those in the same larger tradition (such as Sunni, Shi’a or Ahmadiyya Muslims in Islam or Baptist, Holiness, or Catholic denominations in Christianity) began with different answers to problems that are common to our humanity and yet which are also unique to specific historical and cultural circumstances, and they express these differently today and have entirely different goals and objectives now than they did when they started.

The immediate challenge, as I see it, is combating ignorance of our own traditions, whether we profess to be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or anything else. Prothero’s book may be a good start, but this can’t simply be the domain of academics. It needs to get into our houses of worship, our families, and, yes, our schools. We simply have to start with the basics of our own traditions and with those religions that so clearly have an impact on our current global situation. If we fail to at least understand who “we” are, we’re going to continue to bomb a lot more than just Religion 101.

Just ask the Iraqis.