Religion 101

(We here continue with our “Ten Essential ‘-isms’,” which we began listing and describing in the previous post [“Part 1”].)

By way of wrapping up our discussion of polytheism (begun at the end of Part 1), it’s important to add here that polytheism also remains present today within many so-called “indigenous religions” — that is, the native religions of various local and often pre-literate indigenous ethnic cultures. The traditional religions of many Native American, African, Aboriginal (Australian), Maori (New Zealand), Inuit (Canadian), Pacific Island (Oceanic) and many other indigenous cultures typically feature belief in multiple gods — often gods of various natural forces and principles (the sun, the moon, the weather, fertility, disease, war, etc.).

Polytheism frequently occurs in indigenous religions blended almost seamlessly with animism (from the Latin anima, meaning “life,” “life force,” “soul,” “spirit”), a view which holds that the world is filled not only with gods per se but also with a vast multitude of spirits of all sorts. Life or “spirit” is ubiquitous, according to animism, with even seemingly “inanimate” objects — rocks, mountains, rivers, wind — often regarded as “alive” insofar as they are each believed to be “ensouled,” each such natural feature possessing a separate and distinct spirit of its own. Add to this mix of gods and nature spirits the lingering (and often meddling, or otherwise influential) spirits of deceased ancestors, and the spiritual universe of polytheistic and animistic cultures begins to look like a pretty crowded place!

6.  Deism.  This term comes from the Latin deus, which (like the Greek theos) simply means “god.” (Such terms as “deity,” “divinity,” and “divine” are also etymologically related to deus.) Accordingly, deism literally translates as “god-ism” (just as theism does, too). One might therefore be forgiven for assuming that deism and theism are synonymous — two alternative terms for the exact same thing. However, such an assumption would be incorrect. In practice, Deism as a distinctive term has come to refer quite specifically to a particular religious perspective (one quite distinct from the monotheism of traditional Christianity) that came to prominence during the 17th and 18th centuries, in the wake of the European Enlightenment. Deism holds that God initially created the universe, but subsequently left it to its own devices, allowing it to run unencumbered by further divine adjustment, guidance, or meddling. Deists therefore do not believe that God ever interferes with natural law, or intervenes in human history; hence Deism affirms no miracles, no prophecies, and no divine revelations. Deists consequently reject such popular cornerstones of evangelical Christianity as belief in the divinity of Christ as an alleged incarnation of God (or Son of God), as well as belief in the inerrancy and the divinely revealed (or divinely inspired) nature of the Bible. It’s worth noting that many of the American “Founding Fathers” were Deists, rather than Christians — a fact of history that is helpful to keep in mind when listening to contemporary debates, currently raging in some circles, over whether the framers of the Constitution ever intended for the U.S. to be a specifically “Christian” nation.

7.  Henotheism.  This one is probably the most obscure of all of the “-isms” in this list, but it’s actually quite an intriguing one. This term comes from the Greek heis theos, which literally translates as “one god”; however, henotheism is not merely a synonym for monotheism. Rather, the term is used to refer to the practice of worshipping just one god in particular, while nevertheless recognizing the existence of other perfectly valid gods. In other words, henotheists need not deny the existence of multiple gods, all of whom may be legitimately worthy of worship, but they choose to devote themselves only to one specific god (out of all the available gods). Henotheism therefore might be defined as “one-god-out-of-many-ism.” Hindus, for example, may choose with equal legitimacy to worship Vishnu, or Shiva, or the Goddess in any of her variant forms, or any of a number of other Hindu deities, all of whom are viewed as being perfectly valid objects of legitimate worship. Henotheism is somewhat related to a similar concept, that of monolatry, which is much more exclusive: in monolatry, other gods may exist, but the particular god to whom one “pledges allegiance” is regarded as as the one and only god who is genuinely worthy of worship. Some biblical scholars suggest that ancient Israelite religion in its early stages may have initially been monolatrous, rather than monotheistic (a trait that evolved much later in Israelite history). Such scholars point out, for example, that the First Commandment (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) does not deny the existence of other gods, but merely demands sole and exclusive allegiance on the part of Israel to their own God alone (e.g., they are to faithfully worship only the God of Israel exclusively, as opposed to any of the various foreign gods of other nations).

8.  Pantheism.  The prefix “pan-“ is Greek for “all” (as in Pan-American, panacea, panchromatic, panorama, etc.). So, “pan-theism” is literally “all-god-ism” (or perhaps “all-IS-God-ism”), referring to the belief that God is everything, and everything is God; God and the universe are regarded as identical. This stands in sharp contrast to many more traditional monotheistic views, according to which God is both personal and radically distinct from creation (God as the “Wholly Other”); the pantheist view instead maintains that there is no personal God as such, and that “God” and creation are one and the same. Whereas traditional monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam typically maintain that God alone is divine, pantheism asserts that everything is divine, because everything is God. Like everything else, pantheism comes in various forms; some versions of pantheism amount to little more than reducing God to a synonym for nature or the cosmos, which is considered sacred in and of itself.

9.  Panentheism.  As its name suggests (“pan-en-theism” = “all-IN-god-ism”), this is kind of an expanded variant of pantheism. Whereas straight pantheism insists that God and the universe are identical, panentheism allows that God “contains” the universe within him/her/itself, while also extending beyond the universe (so that God is not limited to, or exclusively contained within, the cosmos). According to panentheism, we are literally “in” God, and God is literally “in” everything. Whereas pantheism emphasizes God’s immanence (his direct, immediate presence within creation), and monotheism tends to emphasize God’s transcendence (his existing or extending beyond creation), panentheism emphasizes both that God suffuses and supersaturates everything that exists, while simultaneously also existing or extending infinitely beyond the universe.

10.  Monism.  Strictly speaking, this is a philosophical rather than a religious or theological position per se; monism (literally “one-ism”) is the view that, despite appearances to the contrary, all of reality consists solely of one single, undivided Unity. In contrast to the commonsense view that reality consists of a vast number of entirely separate and distinct individual things (atoms, molecules, people, planets, galaxies, etc.), such multiplicity is merely relative or even mere illusion; at a much more profound and fundamental level, the universe actually consists of only One Thing. In specifically religious versions or variants of monism, this unique, all-encompassing Singularity is regarded as divine, and is typically identified either as God or as some non-personal, non-monotheistic equivalent (which I suppose one may label “God” if one wishes, assuming one is willing to use the term “God” to apply equally to non-personal, non-monotheistic conceptions of the single Divine Reality). Religious monisms therefore also assert that God is everything, and everything is God. Everything is divine, because there is nothing that is not God; God is all that is, because God simply IS all that there is.

There is obviously considerable overlap between monism, pantheism, and panentheism. Much Hindu theology (such as that of its Vedanta school of metaphysics) is monistic and/or panentheistic in character; the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads affirm that everything — including, notably, human beings — is ultimately identical to Brahman, the infinite and eternal (but non-personal) ultimate divine Reality. All is Brahman, because Brahman is all that is; since Brahman is divine, it follows that we too are divine, since in the final analysis we are Brahman, even if we don’t realize it (so “realizing it” becomes the primary religious or spiritual goal). Reflecting upon how the very atoms that compose us were formed in the furnaces of faraway stars, the late astronomer Carl Sagan once observed (on his PBS TV series Cosmos) that “we are star-stuff”; a monist or a pantheist might somewhat similarly observe that “we are God-stuff.”

In conclusion: Being equipped with a basic understanding of the meaning and significance of these ten terms (or “-isms”) may go a long way toward helping to make reading about, and reflecting upon, the world’s various religious traditions and spiritual pathways much clearer, more systematic, and more comprehensible.


Newcomers to the study of religion and spirituality, whether they approach such a study academically and objectively (as my own students do, in a college classroom) or more personally and subjectively (perhaps during moments of private religious reflection, or as part of a more sustained spiritual search), are very much like newcomers to the study of any new topic or unexplored territory. There are bound to be some unfamiliar new concepts to become acquainted with, and some new vocabulary terms to learn which relate to these new concepts.

In other words, one must begin by learning some of the jargon, the lingo, the argot, the nomenclature.

Accordingly, it may be helpful for some readers (those with little or limited previous knowledge and experience in comparative religion) if we first take some time to define a few very basic “technical terms” — some essential terminology which is likely to appear fairly frequently in many future Religion 101 blog entries.

By no means, however, is the following brief list of “-isms” exhaustive.

After all, the very names of many religions or spiritual paths themselves constitute “-isms” (Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, Neopaganism, Rastafarianism, Sikhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, etc.). On the other hand, not all religions are themselves labeled formally as “-isms” (for example, Baha’i, Christianity, Islam, Santeria, Scientology, Shinto, Voodoo, Wicca, etc.).

Likewise, many denominations within Christianity, along with similar sects, branches, and other subdivisions within other religions, also constitute so many additional “-isms” (Catholicism, Protestantism; Episcopalianism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterianism; Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Unitarianism; Shi’ism, Sufism, Wahhabism; etc.).

And then, of course, there are a great many other kinds of relevant “-isms,” such as those that relate not to specific individual religions or denominations but instead to certain general types of philosophical positions or theological stances or metaphysical movements of various sorts which may be found, to varying degrees and in various combinations, among many religions (for instance, animism, apocalypticism, Calvinism, creationism, evangelicalism, fundamentalism, humanism, inerrantism, mysticism, occultism, Pentecostalism, premillennialism, Puritanism, revivalism, sacramentalism, secularism, shamanism, trinitarianism, unitarianism, Zionism, etc.).

We will be exploring at least some of the above “-isms” in future blog entries, but we can hold off on defining such terms as those until we get to the relevant future entries.

The following terms are not specific to any single religion. Rather, they broadly represent different fundamental ways of conceptualizing, understanding, and responding to the divine (or to the sacred), however it may be conceived of among various specific religions. Hopefully this will all become much clearer as we look at each of these basic terms, one by one. In my experience, students sometimes get some of these terms and concepts a bit mixed up, and are often a bit unclear or hazy as to the precise meanings of some of them, so it may be helpful to run through them thusly:

1.  Theism.  This term comes from the Greek theos, which simply means “God,” or “a god.” Theism therefore literally translates simply as “god-ism,” e.g. a belief in God, or in a god. (Likewise, the term theology literally means “words about God,” e.g. the study of God and related matters.) On its own, “theism” is a pretty generic term; strictly speaking, theism per se need not necessarily specify which god, or what kind of god, or how many gods, or any other additional details. In common parlance, however, theism is often used as a virtual synonym for the more narrowly precise term monotheism, which specifically denotes belief in just one single God alone (see its own entry below). Most religions (although, perhaps surprisingly to the uninitiated, not all religions) are theistic, insofar as they believe in some sort of God (or gods), however variously conceptualized or defined.

2.  Atheism.  The negative prefix “a-“ (meaning essentially “non-” or “not”, or perhaps “without”), when applied to any term, generally negates that term, and more specifically denotes the absence of what the original root term refers to. Common examples of this linguistic device at work include such terms as amoral (meaning “non-moral,” or the absence of morality), ahistorical (“non-historical,” or the absence of historicity), asexual (“non-sexual,” or the absence of sexuality), asymmetrical (“non-symmetrical,” or the absence of symmetry), and atypical (meaning “not typical,” or the absence of “typicalness,” as it were). Atheism (“a-theism” or “non-theism”) is therefore simply the opposite of, or the absence of, theism (hence an absence of belief in God or gods, as defined above). An atheist, then, is just someone who is not a theist — someone who is simply without any belief in God (or gods). Many atheists further emphasize that atheism itself is not “a religion,” but quite the opposite, being instead the simple lack or absence of any “religion” whatsoever. On the other hand, some religions such as Buddhism and Jainism can be characterized as “atheistic” in nature, insofar as they do not recognize the existence of God.

3.  Agnosticism.  This term comes from the Greek gnosis (meaning “knowledge”), but modified with that same sort of negating “a-“ prefix that turns theism (the belief in God or gods) into atheism (the lack of belief in God or gods). So, agnosticism (literally “a-gnosticism,” denoting a lack or absence of gnosis or knowledge) simply refers to being “without knowledge,” one way or the other, regarding God (or gods). Strictly speaking, agnosticism technically refers to the view that definite knowledge about God is impossible or unavailable; colloquially, however, agnosticism is often used more loosely by many people to refer to their persistent personal uncertainty, one way or the other, about the existence of God. Many agnostics so identify themselves simply as a shorthand means of indicating their own noncommittal indecision — a kind of “the jury is still out” position, somewhere midway between theism and atheism, neither fully believing nor fully disbelieving but suspending judgment and remaining open to either possibility.

4.  Monotheism.  The prefix “mono-“ is Greek for “one” (as in monochromatic, monogamous, monophonic, monopoly, monotonous, monounsaturated, etc.). So, “mono-theism” is literally “one-god-ism,” or the belief in the existence of a single God (to the exclusion of any other additional gods). Monotheistic religions believe in one, and only one, Supreme Being. Many monotheists typically go even further, usually regarding this singular Deity as the divine Creator of all things, and commonly characterize it as being in some sense “personal” (having intelligence, memory, and a “will,” expressing moral preferences, communicating commandments and other divinely revealed information, expressing emotions such as love or wrath, entering into personal relationships, etc.). Monotheism is a prominent characteristic of such major Western religions as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as some smaller Western faiths such as Baha’i. However, monotheism can also be found among some of the major Eastern religions as well; Sikhism is monotheistic, as are certain branches and forms or interpretations of Hinduism.

5.  Polytheism.  The prefix “poly-“ is Greek for “many” or “multiple” (as in polygamous, polyglot, polygon, polymath, polymer, polyunsaturated, etc.). So, “poly-theism” is literally “many-gods-ism” (or “multiple-gods-ism”), the belief in more than one god. Often the gods of a given polytheistic religion are arranged in a sort of pantheon; some readers may be familiar with the classical pantheons of Greek gods (Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, etc.), Roman gods (Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Minerva, Diana, etc.), Egyptian gods (Amun, Anubis, Bast, Hathor, Horus, Isis, Osiris, Ptah, Ra, Thoth), Norse gods (Odin, Freya, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Tyr, etc.), and various others. The number of such gods can vary widely; the ancient Greeks identified twelve “Olympians” (so named due to their residence atop Mount Olympus), whereas one traditional Hindu formulation specifies some 330 million gods! Apart from long-vanished classical religions of remote antiquity (including also Sumerian, Canaanite, Celtic, Aztec, Incan, Mayan, and many more), polytheism in one form or another continues to thrive today, in a number of contemporary religions. Some forms of Hinduism and Taoism, as well as some forms of Neopaganism such as Wicca, have their popular polytheistic aspects, although some of their followers also believe that the various gods and goddesses of these faiths are actually subordinate to (or subsumed within) an even higher and singular divine Reality, a perspective that we shall explore in greater depth in future posts. Shinto, Santeria, and Voodoo are additional examples of complex polytheisms still current today.

It may also be worth noting that some avowedly non-polytheistic faiths are sometimes accused by outsiders as evincing what, for all intents and purposes, comes across as a sort of “practical polytheism.” Buddhism’s pantheon of multiple buddhas and bodhisattvas, for example, or Catholicism’s devotion to Mary and veneration of its own pantheon of saints, are sometimes targeted in this manner as being to some degree “polytheistic” — at least in practice, if not in theory. Somewhat similarly, the exclusively Christian theological doctrine of the Trinity, which simultaneously affirms the monotheistic unity of God while insisting that God is nevertheless somehow constituted by three distinct “Persons” (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) strikes many non-Christian theological critics as amounting to a kind of “tri-theism,” all protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

(This list of “Ten Essential ‘-isms'” will continue in Part Two.)


•  Only half of American adults can name even one of the four Gospels.
•  Most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.
•  Only one-third know that Jesus (no, not Billy Graham) delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
•  A majority of Americans wrongly believe that the Bible says that Jesus was born in Jerusalem.
•  When asked whether the New Testament book of Acts is in the Old Testament, one quarter of Americans say yes. More than a third say they don’t know.
•  Most Americans don’t know that Jonah is a book in the Bible.
•  Ten percent of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

          — Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

As a community college instructor who teaches courses on world religions, I am struck at the beginning of every new semester by just how little so many of my incoming students actually seem to know about religion. And this is true even for some students who consider themselves pretty religious — whom one might, therefore, reasonably expect to be at least a little bit better informed about religions in general (and their own religion in particular) than often seems to be the case.

Community college students, as a group, constitute a pretty diverse lot, being of all ages (ranging from recent high school grads, still in their teens, all the way to retirees in their sixties and seventies), and coming as they do from all sorts of social, economic, educational, political, professional, and of course religious (or non-religious) backgrounds. Being so broadly diverse, community college students probably represent a pretty fair sampling of the public at large. If the surprisingly shallow grasp of religion that so many of my own community college students seem to exhibit on the first day of class is any indicator, then “religious illiteracy” is far more widespread among the general public than many may imagine.

“Sixty percent of Americans can’t name five of the Ten Commandments, and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.”

“… a study in 2005 by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools… surveyed 1,000 high schoolers and found that just 36% know Ramadan is the Islamic holy month; 17% said it was the Jewish day of atonement.”

— “Americans get an ‘F’ in religion” by Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today (3/14/2007)

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religious studies at Boston University, wrote a whole book on just how woefully uninformed the American public is about religion. His 2007 bestseller Religious Illiteracy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t underscored, among other things, the remarkable irony that the United States is one of the most overtly religious nations on earth, as well as among the most religiously diverse places on the planet, and yet widespread “religious illiteracy” is rampant among the U.S. population, who seem as a whole rather astonishingly uninformed (or misinformed) about the world’s major religions.

“According to recent polls, most Americans adults cannot name one of the four Gospels, and many high school students think that Sodom and Gomorrah were married. A few years ago no one in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show audience could name any of Jesus’s twelve apostles, but everyone, it seemed, was able to list the four Beatles. No wonder pollster George Gallup has called the United States ‘a nation of biblical illiterates'”…. In a 2004 study of Bible literacy among high school students, most evangelical participants were not able to identify ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ as a quote from the Sermon on the Mount.

“When it comes to religions other than Christianity, Americans fare far worse. One would hope that U.S. citizens would know the most basic formulas of the world’s religions: the Five Pillars of Islam, for example, or Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. But most Americans have difficulty even naming these religions. In a recent survey of American teenagers, barely half were able to come up with Buddhism and less than half with Judaism when asked to list the world’s five ‘major religions.’ Far fewer could name Islam or Hinduism. According to Harvard religious studies professor Diana Eck, ‘Christians in the United States are pretty abysmally ignorant about the religious traditions of the rest of the world.'”

— Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

With each new semester, I regularly encounter among large numbers of the incoming students in my own classes precisely this sort of deep and widespread religious illiteracy — or religious “ignorance” (in the literal and non-judgmental sense of meaning merely uninformed or unaware; I do not mean it in a pejorative sense, since being “ignorant” is not the same thing as being dull or stupid). Many if not most of them seem to arrive on the first day of class with very little real knowledge of the world’s religions — and often even with little real knowledge of the very religions which they say they belong to, or believe in.

“In 1997 Tonight Show host Jay Leno took to the streets of New York to find out how much average Americans know about the Bible. Interviewees told him that God created Eve from an apple, that Jacob gave his son Joseph a new car, and that Matthew was swallowed by a whale.”

— Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

My work as an instructor in the academic study of religion is, therefore, cut out for me.

“Many American Christians here do not know that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Jesus or that the Trinity comprises the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many Baptists cannot tell you how their denomination understands its signature rite of adult baptism. Many Methodists will simply shrug if you ask them about their denomination’s distinctive doctrine of sanctification. And many Lutherans have no idea who Martin Luther is… a 1954 Gallup poll asked Americans to name the founder of any religion other than Christianity. Only about a third were able to do so. In a more recent study the overwhelming majority of Americans freely admit that they are not at all familiar with the basic teachings of Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism.”

— Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

And it isn’t just relatively exotic religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism that so many of my own students are woefully unacquainted with. I have students every semester coming into my classes who seem utterly clueless even about the major Western faiths that are predominant right here, in their own country — including even Christianity, the religion with which the overwhelming majority of North Americans (75% or more, according to polls) identify with as their own. And the degree to which they are uninformed about these most prominent and familiar U.S. faiths can sometimes be downright shocking. Many of my students who staunchly identify themselves as Christians, for instance, seem startlingly unacquainted with some of the most essential beliefs of standard Christian theology.

“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… here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates… both the private and the public lives of Americans are ‘awash in a sea of faith.’ Unfortunately, however, Americans’ knowledge about religion runs as shallow as Americans’ commitment to religion runs deep. Many cannot recognize the phrase ‘Hail Mary’ except as the name of a football play; many are unaware that the pop singer Madonna was actually named after someone. In fact, most Americans lack the most basic understanding of their own religious traditions. Americans, writes historian R. Laurence Moore, ‘are stupefyingly dumb about what they are supposed to believe.'”

— Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

Each term, I find myself having to once again point out, for instance, that Judaism does not recognize Jesus as the messiah (“Whaddaya mean, Jews don’t believe in Jesus? Why not?” is a common refrain of genuine surprise). I repeatedly have to explain that the Hebrew Bible is basically the Old Testament (believe it or not, this comes as news to a great many students), and that Jews do not include the New Testament within their canon of scripture. I have new students every semester who insist that Catholics and Christians are two entirely different and unrelated things (“Catholics aren’t Christians” is another surprisingly common refrain).

One semester, I had a student argue repeatedly with me when I happened to mention that the Immaculate Conception did not, in fact, refer to the Virgin Birth. This student insisted over and over again that I was wrong, and that the two terms were synonymous. (They aren’t. They refer to two very different things.)

Many of my students seem convinced that all Muslims are by definition terrorists, that the God of Islam is a different God than the Judeo-Christian biblical God (assuming that “Allah” must refer to a different deity altogether), and that the current Palestinian/Israeli conflict has been going on “for thousands of years” (oblivious to the fact that the modern state of Israel was only established in 1948).

To many of my students who are new to the study of religion, Hinduism is a completely blank slate, apart perhaps from vague notions about swamis and sacred cows. Many seem to think the Buddha is that fat jolly Chinese guy they see statues of in Chinese restaurants. Confucius is little more than a source to which trite fortune cookie aphorisms are erroneously attributed. And while most have at least heard of Judaism, few seem ever to have heard of Sikhism, despite the fact that there are more Sikhs in the world than Jews.

“Only a tiny minority can name a single scripture from any Asian religion [Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.]… most students could not list the four Gospels, only one out of eight could name the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, and only one in four could name a single Hindu scripture. National surveys have shown that most Americans cannot name five of the Ten Commandments; my students averaged four… only one in six knew that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is a quote from the Sermon on the Mount…. In their imaginations Paul bound Isaac, Noah led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Babylon, Moses was the recipient of the dove’s olive branch, Abraham was blinded on the road to Damascus, and Jesus was nearly as likely to be born in Jerusalem or Nazareth as in Bethlehem… 10 percent of my class thought that Paul was one of the four Gospels… the vast majority of my students did not know that the First Amendment both guarantees religious freedom (the free exercise clause) and prohibits the government from endorsing religion (the establishment clause). In fact, only one in six of my students knew both of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.”

— Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t (2007)

But I can’t really blame these students; it’s not their fault. Our public educational system has shortchanged them. It may have taught them “the three Rs” (reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic), and it may have given them some exposure to, and familiarity with, basic history and geography (in “social studies” classes) as well as basic biology and perhaps chemistry or physics (although some of the public school science courses I took were taught by football coaches who seemed to possess little additional grasp of the science they were presenting than what was superficially evident from our textbooks, from which they simply read aloud to us… but that’s another topic altogether).

The sad reality is that our public school curriculum gives precious little attention — if any at all — to introducing students to the basic beliefs and practices, or to the historical and cultural impact, of the world’s major living religious traditions.

“The United States is one of the most religious places on earth, but it is also a nation of shocking religious illiteracy.

“Only 10 percent of American teenagers can name all five major world religions and 15 percent cannot name any.

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the Bible holds the answers to all or most of life’s basic questions, yet only half of American adults can name even one of the four gospels and most Americans cannot name the first book of the Bible.”

— from HarperCollins’s book description for Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy, at the publisher’s website (

This has always struck me as a major gap in our educational system. One need not be religious oneself in order to study religion; whether one agrees with any of them or not, religions are realities which do exist out there in the wider world, and if education involves learning about the world, than studying (rather than ignoring) at least the major religions which exist as such prominent features of that world is surely called for. Regardless of one’s own personal religious preferences or affiliations (or lack thereof), how can one be a genuinely educated and adequately informed “citizen of the world” if one lacks familiarity with even the most basic beliefs, practices, scriptures, institutions, and other elements of the various major faith traditions that command the allegiance of, orient the lives of, influence the art and architecture, the music and literature, and even the politics, social activism, and foreign policies of literally billions of one’s fellow human beings?

Okay, end of soapbox. Back to my main point, which is in fact the very raison d’être (“reason for being”) for this new Beliefnet blog: a huge number of people in the U.S. (and beyond) are walking around and living their lives with — through no fault of their own — huge gaps in even very basic knowledge about the various major religions of the world (often even including, surprisingly, the very religion with which they themselves identify, or claim affiliation with).

“A new survey of Americans’ knowledge of religion [a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life] found that… many respondents could not correctly give the most basic tenets of their own faiths.”

“Forty-five percent of Roman Catholics who participated in the study didn’t know that, according to church teaching, the bread and wine used in Holy Communion is not just a symbol, but becomes the body and blood of Christ.”

“More than half of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation. And about four in 10 Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the greatest rabbis and intellectuals in history, was Jewish.”

“The survey… aimed to test a broad range of religious knowledge, including understanding of the Bible, core teachings of different faiths and major figures in religious history. The U.S. is one of the most religious countries in the developed world, especially compared to largely secular Western Europe, but faith leaders and educators have long lamented that Americans still know relatively little about religion.”

“Respondents to the survey were asked 32 questions with a range of difficulty, including whether they could name the Islamic holy book and the first book of the Bible, or say what century the Mormon religion was founded. On average, participants in the survey answered correctly overall for half of the survey questions.”

“…. Less than half of Americans know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and less than four in 10 know that Vishnu and Shiva are part of Hinduism.”

— “Survey: Americans don’t know much about religion” by Rachel Zoll, Associated Press (9/28/2010)

Given these circumstances, many who embark upon a spiritual search or religious reflection often conduct it in a limited fashion, largely unaware of the immense variety of living religions and spiritual paths that exist. Many simply lack a clear sense of what the broad range of the global religious and spiritual “landscape” really looks like, or are otherwise inadequately informed as to the full spectrum of faiths and practices available to them. What tidbits of religious information they may happen to pick up along the way is frequently not only haphazard and out of context, but all too often filled with misunderstandings, fuzzy grey areas, blank spots, and outright errors.

“Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.”

“…. According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, only one third of Americans can name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Is it any more startling that only one third can identify the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount?”

“A 2005 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly two-thirds of Americans endorse the simultaneous teaching of creationism and evolution in public schools. How can citizens know what creationism means, or make an informed decision about whether it belongs in classrooms, if fewer than half can identify Genesis? No doubt the same proportion of Americans think that Thomas Edison said, ‘Let there be light.'”

“Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” More than 10 percent think that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and — a finding that will surprise many — evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.”

“It is less surprising but more dangerous, given America’s role in the world, that the public knows even less about Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism than it does about Christianity and Judaism.”

— “Blind Faith” by Susan Jacoby, The Washington Post (3/7/2007)

Many such seekers might benefit from a clear and unbiased, concise yet comprehensive introductory overview of the global “Big Picture” of religion and spirituality — an essential orientation to the major religious traditions and spiritual pathways. Exposure to a broad yet detailed picture of what the worldwide “religious landscape” actually looks like stands to benefit seekers by equipping seekers with a much more solid and reliably informed foundation from which to proceed, along with a kind of general “road map” to help guide them in their further personal explorations.

In its own modest way, this little blog will attempt to at least begin to redress that deficiency, one small point by one small point.

Basic knowledge of comparative religion and global spiritualities is simply seldom part of most people’s education these days. The result is that a lot of intelligent and otherwise highly informed folks go through life with a very limited (if not also somewhat distorted) understanding of all the religious options and spiritual choices open to them. They need a handy “bird’s eye-view” of religion in a nutshell, along with some helpful correction or clarification of much of the misunderstandings and misinformation they may have already absorbed.

To longtime Beliefnet readers, or to others who may be a bit more informed regarding religious matters, some of the topics which will be addressed in upcoming blog entries might seem a little too basic. But there are large numbers of people out there who are new to this field, and for whom many of these topics may come as real news — perhaps even, in some cases, as genuinely eye-opening revelations. If the general public is, on the whole, about as religiously uninformed as so many of my own students seem to be (and I suspect that community college students, being themselves a pretty diverse lot, are fairly representative of the public at large), then there may always be a large pool of people out there who are just beginning their spiritual searches, who are new to religious reflection (and who therefore probably feel more than a little lost as to just how to proceed), and who may therefore turn to sites like Beliefnet for initial guidance.

Since there will always be newcomers to the field, “newbies” who are only now just beginning to explore and reflect upon matters religious and spiritual in a broadly global context and who arrive relatively unprepared and feeling somewhat clueless — lost, disoriented, overwhelmed, or otherwise in over their heads right from the get-go — there may always be a need for an introductory blog such as this: a kind of “Religion 101” in the most basic (and hopefully useful) sense, a resource serving to provide a broad overview of the landscape, to help newcomers find their bearings, and to clear up some widespread misconceptions, fill in some blanks, and patch some holes in the general public’s knowledge and understanding of matters religious and spiritual.

And who knows? Even generally well-informed readers may also discover some interesting or enlightening new information, insights, and perspectives, as this blog develops over the coming weeks and months. So, stay tuned!