What Americans don't know about religion is sometimes funny. For instance, when Jay Leno interviewed people on the street recently, someone told him that God made Eve out of an apple.
Our ignorance also makes for some astonishing statistics. Ten percent of us believe that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Seventy-five percent of us are certain that the Bible says, "God helps those who help themselves." Even evangelical Christians have lapses: 20 percent say they believe in reincarnation.
It should not be surprising, then, that most Americans don't know the difference between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Most of us haven't read any Hindu Scripture, and we couldn't find the Buddha's Eightfold Path with a map.
In his new book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't," Stephen Prothero, head of the religion department at Boston University, points out what Americans don't know and how it can hurt us. His book includes a religious literacy quiz that he says most of his beginning students fail at the start of an introductory course.
Because we are ignorant of the Bible, of our own faith (whatever religion we might practice) and of others' religious traditions, we stand to suffer politically, culturally and personally, Prothero says.
We can't decode political speeches, we can't weigh religious arguments, we can't explain to our own kids why we disagree with others on a religious point, he explains in a telephone interview. We're even confused about our own beginnings.
"Ever since George Washington put his hand on a Bible and swore to uphold a godless Constitution, the United States has been both staunchly secular and resolutely religious," Prothero writes in "Religious Literacy."
The problem, Prothero argues, is an unfounded wariness of teaching religion as a secular subject. Only 8 percent of public high school students report that their school offers a class on the Bible.
"There are two ways to talk about religion," Prothero says. "The way we're most accustomed to is a Sunday or Sabbath school way, as a matter of personal faith. But religions are institutions, with histories and books that outsiders can read and ethical codes that outsiders can learn. There is as much knowledge to be gained about religion as there is about music, art and history."
Like it or not, religion has shaped and still is shaping American history, culture, politics and foreign policy, Prothero says.
"If you want to understand the upcoming presidential campaign, you have to know something about religion," he says. "Mitt Romney is talking about his Mormonism. John Edwards is talking about Jesus. Hillary Clinton is talking about the good Samaritan in the context of immigration reform."
Americans who are ignorant about religion are vulnerable to "being bullied," Prothero says, by politicians and by those in the news media who "give too much coverage to the crazy arguments."
"Between the crazy secular left and the crazy religious right, there is a really huge middle," he says. "That middle tends to be silent because we don't know enough" to talk intelligently about religion.
The diversity of religious expression in the United States is challenging, he says, but it is no excuse for nursing our ignorance.
"Our public debate about religion-inflected matters is dominated by people on the far left and the far right, who either think religion should be run out of politics or rammed down our throats," he says. "This leads to a kind of public discussion that is more heat than light."
What's a country to do? Prothero calls for public school classes that teach about religion and sacred texts by trained teachers who know their Constitutional responsibilities. In the meantime, he's compiled a dictionary of religious words, people, stories and symbols that fills 78 pages of his book.
If nothing else, he says, spend an afternoon reading two books of the Bible, Genesis and Matthew.
"If you read those two books, you get about 80 percent of the characters, phrases and stories that are used in American politics," he says. "It's a start."
And then, unlike a chunk of the American public, you'll know that Abraham Lincoln didn't deliver the Sermon on the Mount and that Sodom and Gomorrah were never married.
Nancy Haught writes for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore.
WHAT EVERY AMERICAN NEEDS TO KNOW
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: HarperSanFrancisco (March 13, 2007)
A Religious Literacy Quiz: How much 'God stuff' do you really know?
Test your knowledge with this quiz from Stephen Prothero's book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't."
1. Name the four Gospels. List as many as you can.
2. Name a sacred text of Hinduism.
3. What is the name of a holy book of Islam?
4. Where according to the Bible was Jesus born?
5. President George W. Bush spoke in his first inaugural address of the Jericho road. What Bible story was he invoking?
6. What are the first five book of the Hebrew Bible or Christian Old Testament?
7. What is the Golden Rule?
8. "God helps those who help themselves." Is this in the Bible? If so, where?
9. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God." Does this appear in the Bible? If so, where?
10. Name the "Ten Commandments." List as many as you can.
11. Name the four noble truths of Buddhism.
12. What are the seven sacraments of Catholicism? List as many as you can.
13. The First Amendment says two things about religion, each in its own "clause." What are these two clauses?
14. What is Ramadan? In what religion is it celebrated?
15. Match the Bible characters with the stories in which they appear. Draw a line from one to the other. (Hint: some may be matched with more than one story, or vice versa).
Adam and Eve Exodus
Paul Binding of Isaac
Moses Olive Branch
Noah Garden of Eden
Jesus Parting of the Red Sea
Abraham Road to Damascus
Serpent Garden of Gethsemane
Answers and scoring:
1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. (one point each)
2. Many possibilities, including the Vedas, Brahmanas, Aranyajas, Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Yoga Sutras, Laws of Manu, and the Kama Sutra. (one point)
3. Quran. (one point)
4. Bethlehem. (one point)
5. The Good Samaritan. (one point)
6. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. (one point each)
7. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Matt. 7:12) or a similar sentiment by Rabbi Hillel or Confucius. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is not the Golden Rule. (one point)
8. No, Benjamin Franklin said it. In fact, it is contradicted in Proverbs: "He who trusts in himself is a fool." (one point)
9. Yes, in Matt: 5:3, the Beatitudes of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. (one point)
10. The Protestant, Catholic and Jewish versions differ in terms or grouping/ordering. Give yourself credit for any 10 of the following 12: I am the Lord your God. Have no other gods before me. Do not make yourself a graven image. Do not take the Lord's name in vain. Remember Sabbath and keep it holy. Honor father and mother. Do not kill/murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not covet your neighbor's wife. Do not covet your neighbor's goods. (one point each, maximum of 10)
11. Life is suffering. Suffering has an origin. Suffering can be overcome (nirvana). The path to overcoming suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path. (one point each)
12. Baptism, Eucharist/Mass/Holy Communion, Reconciliation/Confession/Penance, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders / Ordination, Anointing of the Sick / Last Rites. (one point each)
13. Establishment clause: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, …" Free exercise clause: "… or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (one point each)
14. Ramadan is a Muslim holiday characterized by a month of fasting. (two points)
15. Adam and Eve = Garden of Eden, Paul = Road to Damascus, Moses = Exodus and Parting of the Red Sea, Noah = Olive Branch, Jesus = Road to Damascus and Garden of Gethsemane, Abraham = Binding of Isaac, Serpent = Garden of Eden. (one point each)
Check yourself: A grade of A is 90-100 points. B is 80-89. C is 70-79. A passing grade is 60 points or more.