September 10, 2008

The Opposite Of Curiosity

Stephen Prothero, in his "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know — And Doesn't" (HarperOne, 2008), laments the lack of religious literacy in the US. I think he's right to do so, but what's really lamentable is surely the marked lack of religious curiosity in the US. Prothero thinks it's a paradox that a people as openly and aggressively religious as the inhabitants of the US should be so dismally unaware of their own and others' religions, but it's no paradox: on the one hand, so many religions as practiced nowadays in the US deliberately try to short-circuit or discourage the curiosity that underpins real literacy, and do so as an explicit part of those religious beliefs; on the other, the (public) self-absorption and belief in self as total authority that's become almost sacramental in this part of the world rarely makes for engaged religious exploration.

After all, True Belief is surely the opposite of curiosity; and in a nation as full of True Believers as the US, many of those believers probably take general religious illiteracy as a welcome sign of national religiosity and righteousness (though they wouldn't put it quite that way, I'd guess). In a nation where the slogan "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." is a working daily guideline for millions (including high-level politicians and officials), religious illiteracy is almost guaranteed — mostly because it's a greatly-valued part of their religion.

(The flip side of all this — the adoption of religions as lightly-worn lifestyle accessories (think Zen, yoga, etc.) — is a sign of a different sort of religious illiteracy, but one still often motivated or underpinned by a terrible lack of curiosity…).

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