Stephen Prothero Presents The Importance of Religious Discussion

As a snowstorm raged outside, attendees of Professor Stephen Prothero’s talk last Friday evening listened intently as he discussed Americans’ lack of religious literacy as a civic problem and shared ways to address this issue.

“Religion has not only personal but public power. It matters to individuals who believe in Jesus, or worship [the Hindu deity] Krishna, but it also [affects] elections… it moves military forces around the world. Religion may not make sense to you, you may not yourself be a religious person, but you can’t make sense of the world, I would argue, without making sense of religion,” said Prothero in an interview with The Phillipian.

His talk, titled “Religious Literacy & Diversity: How to Talk (and Think) About the ‘R’ Word in Public,” covered the importance of discussions about religion in society, as well as Prothero’s belief that claiming all religions as similar is both false and dangerous to interfaith cooperation.

“It seems there’s a lot of people who want to talk about religion publicly in [the presidential election] now, for example, but there’s also this idea that you shouldn’t talk about religion in good company because it’s a volatile subject and people will disagree. My whole career is dedicated to talking about religion in public in a way that’s civil and informed,” said Prothero.

Prothero was invited to campus by Mary Kantor, Roman Catholic Chaplain, as a part of Andover’s celebration of World Interfaith Harmony Week. Kantor chose Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, with the hope of sparking conversation about how students at Andover view religion.

“We wanted to expose people to wider ways of looking at religious literacy and being exposed to other spiritual traditions… His [voice] is the scholar’s voice of who’s doing the work out there to help get [these conversations] going and help people learn who’s writing about [religion] and talking about it. He’s the guy who can do that,” said Kantor in an interview with The Phillipian.

Prothero presented four key ideas in which religions are framed: the main problem with human society, the specific religion’s solution to the problem, techniques to address the problem and exemplars whose paths the specific religion’s subscribers may follow. According to Prothero, when the world’s religions are viewed in terms of these four ideas, it is easy to see the differences between them.

“The most popular books on the world’s religions that people read in the United States make this argument to overcome religious conflict, an effort to keep us away from religious war,” said Prothero during his presentation. “In order to do that, they try to make the argument that the religions are basically the same. In my book, and here tonight, I want to argue that that’s not true and that we have better basis for interreligious cooperation and for interfaith understanding than this false view that the religions are basically the same.”

“There’s a certain kind of condescension that goes on there, a certain kind of resistance to the richness and diversity of these traditions that has to happen when you try to reduce them down to some sort of common denominator,” he continued.

In 2010, the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life contacted Prothero to help put together an online U.S. Religious Knowledge survey, designed to test the average American’s religious literacy.

“On that test… the average person got 16 questions right out of 32, which is 50 perecent. I don’t know how the grading works here, but that would be an ‘F’ at [Boston University],” said Prothero.

Breyanna Watson ’18, an attendee, recognized the importance of religious literacy to Andover students who wish to be more inclusive of people with other faiths.

“I think the most important thing I took away is the importance for us as human beings to be religiously literate and to learn about religions that are not our own. Also, the fact that not all religions are the same. Listening to him talk about that, I realized that that’s a common thing that people say to make peace, and that you can’t have peace with difference,” said Watson in an interview with The Phillipian.

Prothero believes in the importance of honoring interfaith harmony at a diverse school like Andover and hopes to contribute by advocating for interfaith discussion and religious literacy.

“We have a lot of people in the United States who would describe the United States as a Christian country, but all these religions are here around us. They’re here at this school, they’re here in Boston, New England and California. Now, understanding the world’s religions is a necessity to [understanding] our own neighborhoods, our own towns and our own schools,” said Prothero in an interview with The Phillipian.