Thursday, May 13, 2010

religious literacy

I'm not a prodigious reader but I do usually have two or three books that I'm working through - some I finish and some I lose interest, most take a while, and one that I'm listening to on disk as I commute back and forth to Goleta.

It happens that I'm reading and listening to two books by the same author... and they are important books. The first is the audio book - Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't. In it, Prothero, who is a professor in the department of Religious Studies at Boston University argues that there is a civic reason for every American to be literate in religion. He says that in order to properly understand history and politics, one must understand the religious language and traditions of a people. Equally important, he argues that unless we understand the religions of a given culture, our foreign policy will miss many critical possibilities and pitfalls. For example, he says that had we had experts in the US government ho truly understood Islam as it is understood and practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan, our foreign policies in those countries would have taken very different shapes. He doesn't care whether you believe a articular religion or not, but feels it is critical in or world to understand them and to know the basic beliefs, practices, and narratives.

The second book is God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World and Why Their Differences Matter. This book begins by arguing that all religions are not the same. They do not diagnose the problems of the human condition in the same way, their solutions differ, and the end result they hope for are not the same. The book is his answer to the problem set for in the earlier book. Here are thumbnail sketches of eight religions we should know about in today's world.

I find both of these books to be extremely important ones. Understanding the religious culture of a people is critical to understanding why they do what they do. Without that understanding, there is not possibility of working together to solve the problems we face. Likewise, arguing that every religion is really the same is both insulting to the various religions (the person making the statement always chooses something important to them as the common goal rather than letting the religion speak for itself) and keeps us from really understanding. If we go into the conversation expecting that we're all playing the same game, how will we be able to understand a completely different paradigm of the world.

Obviously there are problems. Trying to distill all of Islam into 40 pages requires oversimplification. Imagine trying to cover Christianity in 36 pages! Still, for most of us, those 40 pages on Islam leave us knowing more than we did when we started. Indeed, even in a country that is majority Christian, the 36 pages on Christianity will leave many folk knowing more than they knew before reading the chapter.

Bottom line, I highly recommend these two books. If you are interested in interfaith work, they provide a good place to start. If you want to be a good citizen of the world, you will be better prepared. If you want to get along better with your neighbors in this increasingly diverse religious mix called America, they are a good place to start.

1 comment:

Ron Krumpos said...

Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

Conflicts in Conventional Religion. "What’s in a Word?" outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.