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A nation of religious illiterates

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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 born-again Christian in the Oval Office and a faith-based party in control of both houses of Congress, the US is undeniably a nation of believers ruled by the same.

Things are different in Europe, and not just in Sweden. The Dutch are only a fourth as likely as 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 religion.

In Europe, religious education is the rule from the elementary grades on. So Austrians, Norwegians, and the Irish can tell you about the seven deadly sins or the five pillars of Islam. But, according to a 1997 poll, only 1 out of 3 US citizens is able to name the most basic of Christian texts - the four Gospels - and 12 percent think Noah's wife was Joan of Arc. That paints a picture of a nation that believes God speaks in Scripture but that can't be bothered to read what he has to say.

US 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.


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