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The Road Goes On

Thursday, January 20, 2005 at 8:56 PM

I'm not religious, I just love the Lord

(I finally downloaded Firefox, which makes blogging via Mac much easier.)

Coleman posted the text of an L.A. Times column (Jan. 12) by Stephen Prothero, a professor at Boston University. (I tried to link to it, but it's no longer available for free).

Here's the lead:
The sociologist Peter Berger once remarked that if India is the most religious country in the world and Sweden the least, then the United States is a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes. Not anymore. With a Jesus lover in the Oval Office and a faith-based party in control of both houses of Congress, the United States is undeniably a nation of believers ruled by the same.

Things are different in Europe, and not just in Sweden. The Dutch are
four times less likely than Americans to believe in miracles, hell and biblical
inerrancy. The euro does not trust in God. But here is the paradox: Although
Americans are far more religious than Europeans, they know far less about

While Prothero can be read as nothing more than an elitist liberal trying to show that "good" religion most definitely did not come out a winner in November's election, his point is broader and deeper than a critique of right-wing American Christianity. . . .

U.S. Catholics, evangelicals and Jews have been lamenting for some time a crisis
of religious literacy in their ranks. But the dangers of religious ignorance are
by no means confined to those worried about catechizing their children or
cultivating the next generation of clergy.

When Americans debated slavery, almost exclusively on the basis of the Bible, people of all races and classes could follow the debate. They could make sense of its references to the runaway slave in the New Testament book of Philemon and to the year of jubilee, when slaves could be freed, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. Today it is a rare American who can engage with any sophistication in biblically inflected arguments about gay marriage, abortion or stem cell research.

Since 9/11, President Bush has been telling us that "Islam is a religion of peace," while evangelist Franklin Graham (Billy's son) has insisted otherwise. Who is right?
Americans have no way to tell because they know virtually nothing about Islam.
Such ignorance imperils our public life, putting citizens in the thrall of talking heads.

An interesting angle on this is the common evangelical refrain: "Christianity isn't a religion, it's a relationship." I know the well-intentioned sentiment usually behind this statement (we're about grace, not legalism), but it also sounds suspiciously like Christian exceptionalism ("I can say all sorts of bad things about 'religion' because I'm not really part of one. . . . the rules don't apply here.")

"Religion" is such a vague and slippery term. I'm sure members of any religious tradition can express similar sentiments ("Judaism isn't a religion (believing certain "spiritual" notions), it's being part of a people and their way of life" -- Come to think of it, I'm more drawn to that one . . . . .).

The argument against learning about religion and theology from this direction seems to be: "Why study "religion" if you don't belong to one, and if religions are all about strict moral demands, arcane rituals, institutions and authorities, and impersonal, abstruse doctrines anyway? Becoming knowledgeable about religion does nothing but hinder your spiritual growth . . . . "

Maybe Americans are actually (in the sense above), the "least religious" developed nation, in that our predominant form of religion is rooted in this pietist, individualistic rejection of organized religion. At any rate, it does make us ill-equipped to engage those parts of the world in which the aspects of religion most repugnant to secular modernity are held with deathly seriousness.

Blogger Wood said...

Ironically I just talked about similar things with my youth group this past week. The youth gave an interesting definition of religion: "your religion is the thing that you devote all of your time and energy to." We often hear that college football is a religion and the stadium is that congregation's church. Though a metaphor last week I taught that we are all religious people and that Christianity is a religion. That relgion and religious are not evil words.

I think thatI agree also with MR. Prothero. It does seem that for the vast majority of people who would call Christianity their religion, they are ignorant of the actual truth of their own religion and do not care to know how other's across the world express this same faith, much less different faiths. (Unless of course it is near the Lottie Moon offering, you are at a WMU meeting, or you are getting ready for a mission trip.) We truly are a self-absorbed culture who has adapted a selfless religion to meet the requirements of our worldview.

I don't know if that is where you are going with your blog Andy, but those are some of my thoughts.  


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