Interview with Stephen Prothero on Why the World Needs to Know Faith

THIS is Part 2 of a 2-part series on Stephen Prothero and “Religious Literacy.” In Prothero Part 1, you will find a 10-question religion quiz you can take to gauge your own literacy.

Perhaps Stephen Prothero shouldn’t be surprised that some Americans are confused about his best-seller, “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t.” If religion is confusing, as he points out in his book — then his noble attempts to sort out this complex subject are just as tricky.

How do I know that some people are confused? These days, I regularly visit the giant Amazon store online to read the reviews people have posted from all around the world. Browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon is even better than browsing bookstore shelves because you can “hear” the whole world talking about the pros and cons of each new book. Well, at least you can enjoy that back and forth around best sellers that attract a lot of reviews.

Since I deeply respect Prothero’s book—and regard it as virtually a “must read” for anyone who regularly relates to the public these days—I was amazed to find at least a few reader reviews on Amazon from people who were disappointed with his book and returned it! The problem—which I’ve tried to help Prothero sort out on Amazon with a fresh review that I added to Amazon this week, myself—is that people really do want to learn about other global faiths. There’s evidence of this powerful trend as recently as this week’s headlines in the New York Times and ReadTheSpirit!

Prothero’s book is not intended as a full-fledged overview of world religions. In fact, as you’ll read in our conversation—that’s a book he is working on right now. You can order “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t” from Amazon. What’s important to understand about Prothero’s book—and what apparently confused and frustrated some readers on Amazon—is that his book is really a manifesto about how we got into this sad situation of religious ignorance—and how to climb out of this hole. He even  provides a great “dictionary” section in his book as a helpful tool.

But, let’s let Prothero speak for himself.

HERE ARE highlights of our interview with Stephen Prothero:

DAVID: For the most part, have you been pleased with readers’ reactions to your book?

STEPHEN: I’ve been really happy with it. There’s been a lot of publicity and attention around the book, which has been great. I was on “The Daily Show” and I was on “Oprah,” which aren’t venues where college professors usually appear. And I’ve heard from a lot of different people about the book by email, which has been fun.
I’ve heard from a number of public school teachers and administrators who are introducing new courses about religion or are transforming existing courses to include more about religion. They’ve been asking me for advice or just informing me about their initiatives. So that’s been fun to be in touch with people out there at the grassroots who are doing the kinds of things I argue for in my book.
I was able here at Boston University to talk to the trustees about getting a religion requirement on the agenda for undergraduates here and I’ve been in touch with other people, too, about trying to get a world-religions requirement of some kind into high schools.
DAVID: Must have been fun to do “The Daily Show,” hmmm? (As I asked this question, we had not yet located the video clip that appears above in this story.)
STEPHEN: Yes. I don’t remember now exactly what his questions were, but I remember we talked about was how little politicians knew about religion. There’s some of that point in my book, but that’s what he was particularly interested in for his show, so we talked about that –- how little our politicians know about Islam and religions of the world, which is so important in international affairs.

DAVID: Well, here at ReadTheSpirit, we’re encouraging people to start discussion groups -– or, if they have groups already, we’re trying to help them find great choices for their groups. I gather that for all of the Americans who are out of school –- and don’t have a chance to take classes on religion in school anymore –- that you think discussion groups are a very good idea.
STEPHEN: I’ve been encouraging the trend of people forming salons -– to modify the basic book group into the 19th-Century idea of a salon. This is becoming very popular in Jewish circles across the United States. I’ve been brainstorming with people about how to run religious education through salons.
DAVID: In other words, you’re talking about groups who gather in an ongoing way to discuss important issues of the day –- to learn together and encourage learning.
So, what are some of the first things you’d suggest that people do in classes or salons?

STEPHEN: The first thing I would push people to do is read the entire Gospel of Matthew and the book of Genesis. If you read those two books and then go from there into The Congressional Record and look at references to the Bible stories and characters that you’ll find politicians referring to over time –- then, with at least those two books in mind, you’ll start getting 9 out of 10 political references to the Bible.
Then, I’d read the Quran, which is only as long as the New Testament and I’ve been urging people to read the Quran not from the front to the back. My main tip is to read the Quran, the first time, from the back chapters to the front chapters. This is what some experts on Islam have told me is a good way to start. Then, you get the more spiritual issues up front instead of reading about the more legal things. Reading it that way, I think, the Quran becomes a little more accessible to western readers.
DAVID: Hmmm. Well, I’ve read the Quran a number of times – and I’m not sure I’d make quite the same suggestion -– but it is true that a lot of western readers, especially Christians who expect to find scriptures moving in a certain chronological order, are surprised to find that the chapters of the Quran are arranged by the length of the chapters — longer to shorter. I do agree with you that reading the Quran should be encouraged in the West, considering how much we tend to talk about Islam these days.

STEPHEN: And, there is a lot more to religion than scriptures. So, there’s a lot more to experience and to learn –- but, if you start reading the Bible and the Quran, that’s at least a good way to start learning more about religion.
Another thing is encouraging people to learn more about many of the important terms we keep using these days -– like Sunni and Shi’a in Islam. Those terms come up all the time these days, but most people don’t know much about them.
It’s really hard to understand the situation in Iraq or the war on terrorism without understanding those distinctions. Or how could you hope to make sense of Iran without knowing about the Shi’a tradition?

DAVID: What else would you read? The back of your book lists some good books, but I gather that you don’t agree with the approach of every popular writer on world religions.
STEPHEN: Well, we need a good, new, basic introduction to world religions. That’s my next book, by the way. I’m going to try to solve that need. It’ll come out in 2009. I’m going to try to do a world-religions book that doesn’t have this sort of 1960s approach to multiculturalism that tries to claim that all the world’s religions really are the same and all religions are wonderful and religion is all about wonderful ideas.
DAVID: You take some issue with writers like Karen Armstrong or Harvard’s Diana Eck, right?
STEPHEN: Where I disagree with Karen Armstrong and Diana Eck –- and I even see the same thing in Huston Smith –- is this ethical imperative I see in their writing that pretends that the religions are all the same and I don’t understand that. I was pretty critical of Karen Armstrong’s “Great Transformations” book. I reviewed that book and I said that it was pretty unconvincing in the way she tried to show that all religions are about nonviolence. I just don’t think that’s true.
DAVID: Clearly you’re pointing out that religion is more complicated than most people believe. Is there any inspirational writing that you enjoy?


STEPHEN: I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church” recently and I loved it and I didn’t even love it for religious reasons. I read it as a great story of someone who was stuck in a very difficult situation –- and got out of it again. I’m not a minister and I’m not ever going to be one, so her situation wasn’t mine –- but it still was a great story.
DAVID: I enjoyed that, too, and I know readers have mentioned it to me, as well, when I go out and talk to groups. I think people like books about faith that don’t follow prescribed patterns. It’s as though so many religious books you pick up –- especially inspirational books –- are just too predictable. You know exactly how it’s going to end -– like “the fix is in” from the start of the story.
The best literature and films always keep us guessing.
STEPHEN: It’s so hard for religious people to talk about religion without feeling that “the fix is in.” It’s so hard for people to write about religion without falling into clichés.

DAVID: Well, I’m intrigued to see what you’ll come up with in your book on world religions. We’ll have to talk again when that comes out.


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