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Stephen Prothero and Religious Literacy - Book Review

Updated on December 30, 2012

Religious Literacy - The Book


In Religious Literacy, Stephen Prothero (2008) addresses the alarming state of religious illiteracy in America, documents the historical developments that led to this current state, and proposes the need for religious education in schools as a remedy. In this essay, after analyzing and mapping his arguments with other authors, I aim to demonstrate how his proposal works well as a preliminary call to action to address the problem of religious illiteracy in America.

Analyzing Prothero (2008)’s Argument

In Part Two, Prothero (2008) skillfully crafted his historical account such that the facts spoke very clearly for themselves; the use of logos and ethos in Prothero’s (2008) writing is evident, especially with the impressive amount of information he provides. This is a charming strategy as Prothero’s (2008) accessible writing style coupled with vast amounts of research and information presents himself as a very credible source of expertise to the reader.
While I am persuaded by his argument, I am cautious about blindly accepting all his propositions. The example of how Japan glorified their exploits in World War I in their school textbooks show us how the same historical facts and events can have different interpretations – whether intentional or not. I argue that although to a lesser degree, given the lack of quantitative data, this same conservative attitude can apply to Prothero’s (2008) writing. However, Part Two’s purpose was not to give a historical account like a history textbook, but to stir enough interest in the reader to read on to his proposal; a preparation for a call to action in Part Three.

Stephen Prothero and Religious Literacy on Amazon

In Part Three, Prothero (2008) offers the reader several suggestions of what can be done to alleviate the problem of religious illiteracy in America. His argument employs ethos and logos to persuade his audience but unlike the previous sections, Prothero (2008) does not present as much research and information to support his case; the logos that flows from his argument arises thus not from scientific evidence, historical data or other facts, but from the fact that his argument and ideas make logical sense when pondered on. Prothero’s (2008) proposal also is presented in a very noble fashion, where he portrays himself as well-intentioned and earnest, making readers receive his proposal more favorably. While emotional persuasion takes place on the periphery, his proposition will evoke an especially passionate response in those who regard religious matters close to their heart. Prothero’s (2008) approach to convincing his readers about this argument is wise, given the way religion and other intangible or potentially controversial issues are intellectualized and medicalized in contemporary secular society. This clever strategy meets the intellectual needs of the average American who may feel compelled to conduct a cost benefit analysis of everything that they are presented with.

Mapping and Responding to Prothero’s (2008) Argument

Debates and interviews between notable figures demonstrate how extreme the views can get between the opposing camps. Dawkins the famous evolutionary biologist, famous for his virulence and toward religious illogicality, dismisses religion as a public menace. One rebuttal that recurs consistently by highly educated and religious scientists such as Alister McGrath is how religion opens their eyes to see and understand the world in a richer way; and in the process, their personal religious convictions are not compromised but are sometimes even strengthened (Dawkins, 2004). Religious knowledge can give one a greater appreciation of the beauty in science; history tidbits about John Calvin and The Protestant Ethic illuminate our understanding of today’s economic system, scientific pursuit, and we even see its imprint in music history.

This view is echoed by Prothero (2008) supporters, although they may articulate it from differing angles. Carr (2007) evaluated several approaches (eg. confessional, non-confessional approaches, constructivist, essentialist) toward religious education before affirming the conclusion that education with religion blotted out is an impoverished affair. While concurring, Gallagher (2009) felt Prothero (2008) overly emphasized the what and whys of religious literacy education instead of the how. As a religious literacy educator, Gallagher (2009) offered practical ways to create conducive learning atmospheres in classroom dealings of this volatile subject.

One major rejection of Prothero’s (2008) argument is that religion and science are incompatible (Mahner & Bunge, 1996; Schneck, 2008; Blancke, Smedt, Cruz, Boudry & Braeckman, 2012), and thus religious education is an unwelcome addition into school curriculum that is dominantly scientific in principle. To begin with, science and religion begin with fundamentally different perspectives, where science derives facts or ‘truth’ from objective methods while religion conversely begins with truth of ‘facts’ that can not be falsified (Schneck, 2008). The ethos of science clash with that of religion, which does not uphold ideals and principles such as exactness, testability and objectivity. When science and religion differ at the doctrinal, metaphysical, methodological and attitudinal levels, this makes religious and science education irreconcilable (Mahner & Bunge, 1996).

In fact Mahner and Bunge (1996) further argue that religious education would result in students mistakenly believing that faith without (or even with opposing) evidence is virtuous, that critical thinking can cease where religious beliefs need to be upheld, and that accepting a moral system (typically anachronistic) based on authoritarianism is admissible. While I might sympathize with such concerns, I feel that a solid education (not necessarily scientific or religious) is one that would help students to discern how faith and science can coexist, and where the boundaries between these two may start, stop and overlap. In fact religious literacy should empower students to navigate through murky waters as they have clearer hindsight that informs the foresight they will need to conceive the present. I daresay that such claims may be perceived as an insult to anyone who has an intellectual pursuit in religious subjects.

Interestingly, Blancke et al. (2012) studied how students reconciled evolutionary theory which contradicts their religious beliefs and upbringing. His study showed how the cognitive developments that occurred from childhood onwards allow students to possess a good understanding of evolutionary theory that does not conflict, threaten, or undermine their faith.

Nonetheless, whether compatible or not, this does not mean that religion and science cannot be taught in school. Just like how the aesthetics contribute to the well-roundedness of an individual, religious literacy equips one with more depth and breadth when engaging the world. With the changing global political and economic climates in our world, the purposes of education have evolved from supporting the agricultural or economic and political progress, to that of survival in our overpopulated world (Aldrich, 2010). Today, as we are concerned about the destruction of men and sustainable development, the importance of religious literacy cannot be ignored. If the roles schools play is to equip students with tools and skills with which to navigate their world, religious literacy incorporated into the arts, sciences and humanities has a distinct and irreplaceable role in contributing towards this educational goal.

Furthermore, when faced with world issues such as the Middle East unrest, how can we expect to deal effectively with our international counterparts if we are ignorant of their culture so deeply steeped in religious conviction? Or how can we understand a superpower like China if we remain unaware of the Cultural Revolution that created a religious vacuum for a decade?

Beyond engaging the aforementioned issues, although I agree with the principles of Prothero’s (2008) argument, I think that implementing them in real life is much trickier. While teaching about religion is definitely different from teaching in religion, there are points in time where the boundary lines begin to blur. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to divorce head knowledge and heart knowledge; often, religious issues innately conjure reactions from listeners. Religion is an intensely peculiar personal topic that increases in perceived relevance to people at different points in life – during personal crisis or soul searching, when facing impending death… or perhaps in an unexpected moment as they journey on their road to Damascus. Even if teachers teach a class of staunch atheists about the dryer aspects religion such as its history, or the ancient languages, we cannot deny that there exists a chance that somewhere down the road these facts might suddenly come alive, illuminating their entire window to life. Truly, this sudden discovery of the wider implications of classroom concepts is not confined to religion. Surely if we have not ceased teaching Psychology because of a misguided soul that abused his knowledge gained from an abnormal psychology class, why should we punish future generations of Americans by denying them knowledge that would enrich their outlook and understanding of the world?

Besides, just as how teachers are typically interested in the subjects they teach, teachers of religious literacy are even more unlikely to withhold any passion for such a personally meaningful subject from their students. Like horror movies that appeal to audiences with specific tastes, this potentially controversial topic of religious literacy would attract a special profile of teachers. Because of this self-selection that occurs, it is reasonable to assume that some teachers teach with the goal that through their classes, their students will either eventually share their personal religious convictions, or be convinced of the ridiculous, absurd and redundant nature of religion. This influences the way lessons are taught, the kinds of questions that are invited, and the resultant attitudes formed in the impressionable minds of students. Thus while teachers may teach about religion in principle, how do we police what actually goes on in the classroom? More crucially, how can we discern the motives of these educators, or design a curriculum that transcends these problems that may surface? These questions apply similarly to other academic disciplines, although their consequences have special pertinence to this topic of religion.

Prothero's battle plan concentrates on educational institutions, with special focus on colleges - a rather elitist strategy of alleviating illiteracy. Religious literacy in high school can be seen as introductory effort, given the reality of the limited curriculum hours that can be devoted to it and the practical considerations (eg. cognitive development) we must consider when teaching religious literacy to high-schoolers. There are two points of contention I wish to raise.

First, although college attendance rates have increased from the past, this targeting of college students ironically neglects an even bigger population of non-college goers. From a sociological perspective, this is an astute way to maintain societal power structures and evoke attitudinal change, but it widens the religious literacy rich-poor gap. Second, placing such a heavy a burden on educational institutions to disseminate religious information is unwise. Religious education is often compared to character education. Religion is communal and social; are we encouraging and perpetuating the dismal cycle of religious illiteracy by replacing and revoking the responsibility of parents and the community to raise children in healthy and moral ways? Who bears the blame when we relinquish this heavy responsibility to the state? If we truly wanted to reach the masses, wouldn’t the conscionable use of mass media be a better method?


It is unsurprising that delving deeper into this subject creates more questions than answers. Prothero (2008) has succeeded in this first step of proposing action to reduce the waning religious literacy. I share his conviction of the importance of religious literacy in America – not just America but in other countries. Today’s global world demands that her citizens be religiously literate; perhaps one thing that needs to be done is to cultivate a healthier and more mature attitude toward religion – which is currently portrayed in rather extreme lights – shrouded in a veil of paranoia and silence while also being the opium of the fanatic masses.


Aldrich, R. (2010). Education for survival: an historical perspective. History of Education: Journal of the History of Education Society, 39, 1-14.

Blancke, S., Smedt, J. D., Cruz, H. D., Boudry, M., & Braeckman, M. (2012). The Implications of the Cognitive Sciences for the Relation Between Religion and Science Education: The Case of Evolutionary Theory. Science & Education, 21, 1167-1184. Retrieved October 31, 2012, from

Carr, D. (2007). Religious Education, Religious Literacy and Common Schooling: a Philosophy and History of Skewed Reflection. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 41, 659-673.

Gallagher, E. (2009). Teaching for Religious Literacy. Teaching Theology and Religion, 12, 208-221.

Mahner, M., & Bunge, M. (1996). Is Religious Education Compatible With Science Education?. Science & Education, 5, 101-123. Retrieved October 31, 2012, from

Prothero, S. R. (2008). Religious literacy: what every American needs to know--and doesn't. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Dawkins, R. (Director). (2004). Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviews - Richard Dawkins [Documentary]. UK: .

Schneck, M. C. (2008). Incompatibility of science and religion. Physics Today, 61, 10. Retrieved October 31, 2012, from


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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      Great review on the book and your sharing from personal reflection. I have found college textbooks slanting towards humanism doctrines in many subjects. I don't believe it is the responsiblity of secular colleges to teach religion, but they should at least be unbiased in their instruction of topics.

    • Charlotte B Plum profile image

      Charlotte B Plum 4 years ago

      Hey Teaches12345!

      Thank you for your comment! I totally agree with what your thoughts! And I wish this was articulated more on campuses to students - especially to those who enter college not knowing that much of what they may be learning stems from a particular school of thought like humanism or postmodernism ... often, the lecturers don't tell their students what they are learning are 'theories' that are formed by man - which is why college can so often be a time of disillusionment and confusion when students are not grounded in their faith.

      I think the most discerning students are able to argue on the same intellectual plane as their professors without compromising their belief system. Personally, I think that understanding how there are different world views that are adopted by different theorists helps - and then being able to explain things from a biblical worldview - (or whatever personal belief one might have) is the most helpful.

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