Religious literacy important in democratic society

(Indianapolis Star, April 18, 2016)

I decided to listen to my friend’s advice and purchase matzah for Passover at a large food store. After 15 minutes of trying to find the boxes of matzah myself, I asked a salesperson. She looked puzzled, “Matzah? What’s that?”

I attempted to explain unsuccessfully. How do you describe bread without yeast? I tried another attendant. “Matzah? Is that a cracker? Check the cookie aisle.”

The person who kindly offered to look it up on the store computer, asked, “How do you spell that?”

I mistakenly had believed that Passover was a well-known festival and that it would be hard to have grown up in a pluralistic culture without somehow having learned what matzah is.

The United States is one of the most religious nations in the world; yet we are the most religiously ignorant. Does such illiteracy really matter? If the future of our country depends primarily on political and economic factors, do we really need to learn about diverse religious traditions? After all, belief is a personal matter.

Recent legislation regarding reproductive choice and LGBT rights should make us aware how belief is impacting the quality of life in our state and country. The political rhetoric that preaches faith over and against reason, and “family values” over and against human rights is based on hazardous misunderstandings of what we mean by religion.

A study of theology would reveal that religion, while reserving a space for mystery, also embraces science and the intellect. As Anne Lamott wrote, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; it’s certainty.” Tragically too many politicians who claim a religious mandate do not bother learning about other points of view, because they have no doubt. They are certain that they are right because they have God’s word on it. This is not religion; it is arrogance.

Religious illiteracy is not only regrettable but dangerous. Lack of basic knowledge about the evolving nature of tradition, the diversity among and within religions, leads to stereotyping and demonization, fear and violence. It also results in disastrous and uninformed policy making. If we actually study religion instead of just proclaim it, we would be aware that some faiths allow for contraception, recognizing that sexual relations are not solely for procreation and that, under designated circumstances, the termination of a pregnancy is permitted. We would be informed that a number of religious groups support and perform same-sex marriages and welcome gay and lesbian members to be ordained as clergy. Knowing this, lawmakers would not be able to legislate discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.

Regrettably some secularists don’t see the point of studying religion; they dismiss it as foolishness. They wish religion would disappear altogether. Fundamentalists don’t see the point of studying other religions; they already know that views other than their own are wrong. They wish their particular version of faith would triumph. This is most unfortunate.

The only way to respond to political demagoguery based on false religious arguments is with sound religious arguments. Yet we barely know the full breath of Christianity or the history and diversity of Judaism, let alone anything about Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. This ignorance has political and international diplomacy consequences. Because of an understandable fear of indoctrination we have left religious education to our churches, synagogues and mosques. It is not enough. We must find a way to responsibly educate the American public in non-sectarian ways about religion for the sake of our democratic future.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.