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Food For Thought Friday, 9/20/13

September 20, 2013

Religious illiteracy makes it difficult for Americans to make sense of a world in which people kill and make peace in the name of Christ or Allah. How are we to understand protests against the Vietnam War, which compelled Catholic priests to burn draft records in Maryland and Buddhist monks to set fire to themselves in Vietnam, without knowing something about Catholic just war theory and the Buddhist principles of no-self and compassion? How are we to understand international conflicts in the Middle East and Sri Lanka without reckoning with the role of Jerusalem in the sacred geography of the Abrahamic faiths and with the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia? Closer to home, how are we to understand faith-based electioneering if the “reds” on the Religious Right and the “blues” on the Secular Left continue to stereotype one another as distinct species? Is it possible to weigh the merits of Supreme Court rulings on religious liberty if we are unaware of the legacies of anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, anti-Mormonism, and anti-fundamentalism in American life?

– Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1987), neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about patients with Korsakov’s syndrome, a neurological illness characterized by profound amnesia. Not knowing in any given moment what they are doing or why, these patients wader around in a state of profound disorientation; in losing their memory, they have lost themselves. Societies suffer from similar syndromes. The French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger has written eloquently about the loss of faith in Europe as  a sort of amnesia. The rise of secularism in Europe, she contends, is rooted not so much in doubt as in forgetting. Religion is a “chain of memory,” she argues, and Europeans have broken that Chain.

– Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy

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