El Greco's version of Paul, courtesy of wikipedia.
When the apostle Paul visited the city of Athens, he noticed an altar dedicated "to an unknown god" and chided the Athenians for worshipping what they didn't know. (Acts 17:23)
According to Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, modern Americans don't come off much better. Prothero is author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't.
In the opening pages of that book, he describes a conversation with a visiting professor from Austria about American students:
They are very religious, he told me, but they know next to nothing about religion. Thanks to compulsory religious education (which in Austria begins in elementary schools), European students can name the twelve apostles and the Seven Deadly Sins, but they wouldn't be caught dead going to church or synagogue themselves. American students are just the opposite. Here faith without understanding is the standard; here religious ignorance is bliss.
He notes a deep paradox about American religiosity:
Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion. They are Protestants who can't name the four Gospels, Catholics who can't name the seven sacraments, and Jews who can't name the five books of Moses. Atheists may be as rare in American as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates.
When Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, it was a laugh line when Tom guessed that David and Goliath were the first two apostles. These days, y'all don't even want to know how many Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah's wife or that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife...
In a world in which religion plays such a major role (not always for the good), that's not just unfortunate; it's kind of dangerous. In fact, I'm not sure which is more dangerous: ignorance about other people's religion or unthinking acceptance of one's own.
More on that tomorrow.
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