In his book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn’t (2007), Stephen Prothero argues that while Americans are the most religious people in the Western World, we are perhaps the most religiously illiterate. He states, that the “private and public lives of Americans are “awash in a sea of faith.” “Unfortunately, however, Americans’ knowledge of religion runs as shallow as Americans’ commitment to religion runs deep.” While some religious and non-religious folks would respond that this really does not matter, it does matter a great deal.
On the one hand, the non-religious would argue that we ought to do away with religion altogether because religion is only an ideology that causes problems and conflicts. They would argue that more wars have been fought over faith, and to some extent their argument is valid. On the other hand, the religious might argue that there is no pressing need for religious literacy for faith is not about formal religion, it is about a relationship with God. Formal religious doctrine and practices only get in the way of a unique and personal relationship to God. But both of these positions ignore the powerful role religious traditions and practices have played and continue to play in the lives of people of faith from all religions and in our world.
Only in the recent past, however, have we come to grips with the reality that religion is a major factor in world affairs. For the most part, until perhaps the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we have ignored or downplayed religion as a powerful force. For sure, the cause of international conflicts cannot be boiled down only to religious ideologies, for there are economic, political, and social issues that contribute to these conflicts as well. But now that we are acknowledging that religion is important to world affairs, and that religion will not simply go away, how are we to respond?
First, we should respond by increasing our literacy about our own faith tradition as well as the religion of others. Churches need to take seriously the old-school idea of Christian Education. We have reduced such times of education to teaching about spirituality and personal relationships with God, which surely have their place. But we are failing to teach Christian theology and practice with any depth except when it relates to personal spirituality. Basic biblical and theological knowledge is a must, and specific church traditions ought to be educating the faithful about their beliefs, traditions, and practices.
Moreover, gaining a basic knowledge of other world religions can help us make some sense of world events and history. Such education about other religions will also avoid stereotypes and untruths about other religions that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion. While some churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and time is usually spent finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument with an adherent of that religion. We need to see the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens, and not solely for evangelistic reasons.
Second, we need to gain an appreciation of the truth value of all religions. All the great world religions search for God as the ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans. While the various religions may have their specific way to seek God in order to formulate ideas about who God is, no one religion can logically gain the upper hand of truth over the others. There does not exist a completely logical religion that stands up to every philosophical or scientific critique. This does not mean that to be true faith must answer all the questions that the social and natural sciences throw at it, for faith cannot be proven or disproven by science. But it does mean that while religion can and does acknowledge that God is an all perfect being, religions are human interpretations of the experience of God, and therefore, they are flawed. This does not outright invalidate the truth of one’s religion; but neither does it mean that one religion is more truthful than another.
Finally, through education about our own faith tradition and the religious beliefs of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge the similarities as well as the differences between various religions. At their cores, all religions seek for the common good of humanity. While small groups of adherents from every religion make outsiders think ill of those religions, every faith has a center from which it seeks the common good. Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences, can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another.