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I'll go with "Americans are really that ignorant" for $200, Alex. [Served mission in Germany]

Thanks for posting this, Dave. I finished reading Religious Literacy a couple of months back, and found it quite provocative and interesting.

For those interested, the Deseret Morning News reprinted his religious literacy quiz in March 2007, and it can be found here.

I don´t know; I´m just happy I know - thank God.

I'm not at all convinced Europeans are less ignorant overall. They just spout ignorant ideas that happen to correlate better with what the learned folks want.

Nope. Americans are indeed more ignorant. Europeans are sometimes more vocal about the things they know that we don't agree with, but don't mistake that for ignorance. Also, Americans are much more ignorant when it comes to languages.

I just finished this as well. It's well-written, has some subtle humor, and makes an excellent point. I'll let Dave blog about it instead of writing my own post :)

Dave, unfortunately I must say that Americans often really are that ignorant on this issue. I have to disagree though that Europeans are "well instructed in comparative religion, religious history, and the basic tenets of various denominations", or rather, it is true that they are instructed about these things but they still seem to know nothing about it. Let's put it this way -- my guess is that most religious (Christian) Americans have read the Bible or portions thereof. I do not think that the same can be said of the Europeans who are "well instructed" in comparative religion, religious history, and the basic tenets of various denominations. Reading about different the institutions of different religions in state-provided textbooks (itself an entanglement with religion that sends shivers down many American spines) does not instruct about the content of religious faith. Religious Americans resort straight to the Bible in terms of their personal faith and rely (unfortunately) on all-too-often poorly informed paid clergy of their own denomination for information on other religions.

I certainly see the tension that Prothero is discussing but, if your paraphrasal of his framework is accurate, I think his generalizations have missed the mark. For instance, Americans' "ignorance" about comparative religion, religious history, and the basic tenets of other peoples' religions does NOT mean that their faith is void of content. This is a blatantly provocative conclusion -- and itself belies profound ignorance of religious life in America. I am surprised Prothero would conclude that the fervent and sincere faith of even the most ignorant Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, or Mormon is void of content just because the person hasn't sat exams on comparative religion administered by public schools that are teaching that all churches other than the state-sponsored churches (in most cases mainline Protestant or Catholic) are literally dangerous cults (nevermind that students sitting in the classes might actually belong to those denominations -- and remember that fundamentalist Christians, like our friend Todd Wood, fare not much better than Mormons in such treatments).

That BYU coed is ignorant indeed of Canada's only substantial claim to fame: leading the world at being just north of the United States. Tsk, tsk.

But in defense of ignorant Americans everywhere, it's not like Europeans can tell the difference between a Canuck and a Yankee without the flag sewn to an attached backpack, their possibly superior education notwithstanding.

AHLDuke, Europeans get more credit for knowing multiple languages than they deserve. From yesterday's Washington Post had the article "Belgians Limp Along, Hobbled by Old Language Barriers":

Delval, a French speaker from the country's south married to a Dutch speaker from the north, long ago grew accustomed to relying on his wife to fill out the strictly Dutch-only paperwork from the local mayor's office. Like many people raised in Wallonia, the country's French-speaking region, Delval's Dutch is at best rudimentary, a relic of weekly classes in school.

But in recent months, the linguistic obstacles have accumulated beyond the merely niggling. New regulations stipulate that public land in Delval's municipality can be sold only to people who speak Dutch or demonstrate a willingness to learn it. Teachers in his granddaughter's kindergarten are now forbidden to speak French on school premises. And one recent night, Delval said, police failed to respond to his French-language call asking them to investigate a strange noise outside his front door.


So for now Belgium remains one, officially at least -- Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, with the officially bilingual and thriving cosmopolitan capital, Brussels, in the middle. But Dutch and French speakers live largely separate lives, governed by parallel officialdoms. They watch separate television stations, attend distinct schools and universities and vote for Dutch and French wings of the same political parties.


"Ideally, Belgium should become completely bilingual," said Hadelin del Marmol, 48, a consultant and reserve officer in the army, who proudly cites two generations of relatives who fought and died for Belgium. "But what I'm saying is utterly utopian. Flemings are afraid that their culture will disappear." And Walloons, he added, haven't much desire to learn a language they can't use outside the country or the Netherlands.

john f., Prothero backs up his claim with a bunch of polling data drawn from the last half-century, showing a steady decline in what he calls "religious literacy." This goes for one's own denomination as well as other denominations. After I actually read the book I'll have more to say on this.

And I'll beat Todd to the punch by noting that he will admit to being a Baptist and probably an Evangelical, but disclaim the term "fundamentalist." Prothero distinguishes between Evangelical and fundamentalist in the book -- yet another blog post I have planned for this book.

How tired I am of this ignorant argument about our supposed ignorance. What's the saying, everyone is ignorant, we're just ignorant about different things? And what we are ignorant of usually depends more on external circumstances than personal education.

As to geographic ignorance, every teenager in southern Chile, thousands of miles from my home, thought they knew about California and Los Angeles and the United States. Those same teenagers were genuinely offended when an American didn't have a clue where Chile was or even that it existed. What is the ratio of entertainment and world news dealing with the United States versus Chile? It's hard to say since dividing by zero is undefined. Second, those teenagers only thought they knew something about the US and even my home state and city. What they did know were merely second hand notions from movies and newspaper headlines, hardly less ignorant than the US citizen who had never heard of Chile.

john f,

I imagine you're not lumping the UK in with "Europe" in your rebuke of state-sponsored religious education. In England all school children are required to have a weekly "RE" lesson. It's predominantly Christian (but non-denominational) with a decent helping of world religions, decidedly non-dogmatic, and definitely not indoctrinating.

So, on paper, English kids ought to be quite religiously literate. On the whole they probably are (comparative to what?), but there are plenty of counter-examples. Here's one: I was asked by a boy today (in a below average state school), "why do Islams have a Buddha-spot on their forehead?"

One can only shake one's head.

Ronan, are you seriously condemning a "boy" for not knowing that? Or are you just condemning him for asking the question?

One can only shake one's head...

It's the hopeless mixing of three brown religions that has me puffing out my cheeks.


How tired I am of this ignorant argument about our supposed ignorance.

Might I suggest reading the book before drawing such sure conclusions and expressing your frustration with those that feel like Americans might be ignorant regarding a few fairly significant issues?

I'm not sure that Americans are so much ignorant in matters of religion as they are over-informed. For any religious position or tenet, you can find hundreds of websites, books, pamphlets and pulpit-pounders either extolling it as the Ultimate Truth™ or excoriating it as lies from the pit of hell. America is a more religiously-diverse place than Europe, and with the volume and vitriol of religious dialogue, it's hard to know whom to listen to. So we don't claim to know as much as maybe we do, if that makes sense.

Ignurnt means rude like the Frenchies right?

Well, even though Americans are deluged with religious materials, I'll have to throw in with the "their ignorrant" group. Let me add, though, that while Europeans may be better educated about religion-- I haven't encountered this firsthand-- they are certainly more apathetic. So where Americans are short in the smarts department, they make up with their enthusiasm for God.

Ronan, my point is that being "religiously literate" as you put it does not mean that they have a faith with content. In my comment I acknowledged that students in the UK and Europe receive religious education in the schools (and thereby learn what the state thinks about various religions -- in Europe this has taken the form of teaching how dangerous other denominations besides the state sponsored churches are) but the fact that American students do not does not mean that they have a faith devoid of content. Americans view the content of their faith as their personal relationship with God and their own personal study of the Bible, not in knowing the political machinations that led to the development of particular denominations.

One could argue that the difference is over what counts as significant content for people. To a people who basically are quasi-atheists or at least agnostic, obviously the political machineations are what are important. I dare say to such people theological debates will seem pointless and boring. To people who see the reality of God the main focus will be that personal and social relationship. To folks who like intellectual endeavors theology will appear more significant. (Even though I like theology, I have to admit that I see most theological debates as insignificant and somewhat beside the point)

students in the UK and Europe receive religious education in the schools (and thereby learn what the state thinks about various religions)

For England this is simply wrong. The state does not prescribe the content of RE. All syllabi are created by local school boards (with input from the local community) and the textbooks are written by teachers and professors with zero governmental interference.

RE is still open to teacher bias of course, but my experience is that "religion" is taught rather than "sectarianism." Your daughters will learn about Jesus, Muhammad, and the Buddha at school; they will not learn anything about the Church of England (good) or "harmful sectarian organisations" (bad). Don't mix England with the continent on this one.

the textbooks are written by teachers and professors with zero governmental interference

I didn't know that and find it very interesting. (Of course, the teachers in state schools are also the government, right?)

But it is indeed excellent to know that my daughters will be able to live their religion and take joy from it without being subjected to classes where the day's lesson is why Mormonism is a dangerous cult. Such an experience can be very hurtful for little children who love their religion and their relationship with God.

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