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Don’t know much about theology

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Nearly 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God — now, quick, can you name the Four Gospels?

If you can’t, you’re not alone. Despite our nation’s incredibly strong faith, most Americans don’t know their Asaf from their Ezekial.

“The spiritual State of the Union is abysmal,” said Stephen Prothero, chair of Boston University’s religion department and author of a new book — “Religious Literacy” — that urges greater teaching of religion in school.

Whoa, but not to violate our nation’s traditional barrier between Church and State. Prothero’s religion is knowledge.

“Knowing religion is conducive to a good Democracy,” said Prothero.

We see it played out every day on the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The inability of the people leading the “war on terror” to figure out the basics of Islam — Shiites? Sunnis? Kurds? Who knows? — only exacerbates the problem, he said.

“We’re surprised that all of a sudden, the Sunnis and Shiites are fighting, but that’s the kind of thing you would learn in high school,” Prothero said.

To demonstrate how little Americans know about the basics of religion, Prothero gives students a religion quiz. The 15-question test covers everything from the 10 Commandments (can anyone really name them all?) to what the First Amendment says.

To test Brooklyn’s religious literacy, a Brooklyn Paper reporter hit the streets with the 10 easiest questions from Prothero’s quiz (see graphic). Most respondants considered themselves Believers — and most of them failed the quiz anyway.

Some were accidentally right.

When one woman was asked to name a sacred Hindu text, she laughingly said, “The Kama Sutra,” without realizing she was correct. Her husband leaned over and said, “Isn’t that a sex manual?” (It is. Now, that’s a cool religion!)

On average, people got about six of the 10 Commandments and absolutely no one knew the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

The results may seem odd, considering the Bible’s omnipresence in our society. That’s why Prothero believes that education is necessary — not just for personal understanding, but also on a national and international level.

But some Brooklynites warned that a school religion class could become an excuse to preach.

“I don’t want some fundamentalist to teach my kids that evolution isn’t true and make them pray in school,” said one Park Slope mom, who didn’t wish to be identified.

She conceded, however, “If teaching them religions — as long as it’s not an excuse to make them religious — makes them aware of the world, then I think it’s OK.”

Her squeamishness is common, but the problem is avoidable with good training and a little open-mindedness, said Prothero.

“There’s no constitutional barrier to teaching religion,” he said, simplifying the problem to the teaching of religion — bad — vs. the teaching about religion — good.

“There are going to be unconstitutional teachings, but that already happens anyway with Intelligent Design classes,” Prothero said.

“We go to court and get it straightened out. That’s what they’re for.”

Or we could all just watch “Pulp Fiction” and read “The Da Vinci Code.”

Religion 101: A primer

Americans are a deeply religious people who know nothing about religion. That’s what author Stephen Prothero reveals in his new book, “Religious Literacy.” Take Prothero’s test below to discover your own literacy (answers below).

1) Name the four Gospels.

2) Name a sacred Hindu text.

3) Name the holy book of Islam.

4) Name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament.

5) Name the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

6) What is Ramadan and in what religion is it celebrated?

7) What is the Golden Rule?

8) Name the 10 Commandments.

9) What does the First Amendment say about religion?

10) Is the saying “God helps those who help themselves” in the Bible?


The answers are…

1) Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

2) Kama Sutra, Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Laws of Manu, Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Upanishads, Mahabharata and Puranas.

3) The Koran.

4) Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

5) Life is suffering, suffering has an origin, suffering can be overcome (nirvana) and the path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.

6) Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of fasting.

7) Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

8) Thou shalt have no other God but Me, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain, thou shalt not worship graven images, thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.

9) “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

10) No, it is not. The saying is Benjamin Franklin’s and is directly contradicted by Proverbs 28:26, “He who trusts in himself is a fool.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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