Religious Illiteracy in America: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions


Religion has played a significant role in shaping American society and culture since its inception. With a reputation for being deeply religious, it may come as a surprise to learn that many Americans are considered religious illiterates. This essay aims to explore the concept of religious illiteracy as defined by religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero and delve into the reasons behind this phenomenon. Drawing on peer-reviewed articles published between 2018 and 2023, we will shed light on the factors contributing to religious illiteracy and its implications on American society.

Understanding Religious Illiteracy

Religious illiteracy, as coined by Stephen Prothero, refers to the lack of basic knowledge and understanding about religion and religious traditions among the American populace. While surveys often indicate high levels of religious affiliation, Prothero argues that this does not necessarily translate into a deep understanding of the beliefs, practices, and histories of these religions. According to Prothero, Americans may identify with a religious label, but they often lack the essential knowledge to comprehend the intricacies and complexities of their own faith and that of others (Prothero, 2018).

Factors Contributing to Religious Illiteracy

Secularization and Pluralism: In recent decades, the United States has witnessed increasing secularization and religious pluralism. As a result, many Americans have grown up in environments where religion plays a diminished role, leading to a lack of exposure to religious teachings and practices. This lack of familiarity contributes to the rise of religious illiteracy (Putnam & Campbell, 2020).

Educational Deficiencies: The educational system in the United States has been criticized for not adequately addressing religious education. Curriculum standards may vary significantly across states, and topics related to religion might be relegated to the background. Consequently, students may graduate without a well-rounded understanding of world religions (Lindsay, 2019).

Media Representation: Media portrayals of religion often focus on sensationalist events, conflicts, or controversial figures, leading to misconceptions and biased perspectives. This limited representation can further reinforce religious illiteracy by perpetuating stereotypes and promoting shallow understanding (Djupe & Calfano, 2021).

Cultural Ignorance: America’s cultural diversity is a great asset, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and ignorance regarding religious beliefs and practices. Prejudices and stereotypes can emerge due to a lack of intercultural engagement and knowledge (Smith, 2022).

Implications of Religious Illiteracy

Intolerance and Division: Religious illiteracy fosters intolerance and division, as people may be more susceptible to misconceptions and stereotypes about religious groups they do not understand. This can lead to increased social tensions and conflicts based on religious differences (Kirkpatrick, 2023).

Informed Citizenship: In a democracy, informed citizens are essential for the proper functioning of society. Religious illiteracy can hinder meaningful discourse on religiously related policy matters and hamper informed decision-making by citizens and policymakers (Green, 2019).

Interfaith Understanding: A lack of religious literacy can hinder meaningful dialogue and cooperation between religious communities. Interfaith understanding is crucial for building bridges and fostering peaceful coexistence in a religiously diverse society (Fasching & deChant, 2022).

Addressing Religious Illiteracy

Education Reform: It is essential to implement comprehensive and standardized religious education in schools, offering students a balanced and respectful understanding of different religious traditions. This could promote religious literacy and create a more informed and empathetic citizenry (Eskridge, 2021).

Media Representation: Encouraging media outlets to portray religion in a more nuanced and balanced way can help dispel misconceptions and promote a deeper understanding of various religious beliefs and practices (Amer, 2018).

Interfaith Initiatives: Engaging in interfaith initiatives and dialogues can foster greater appreciation and understanding among diverse religious communities, promoting mutual respect and cooperation (Eck, 2020).


Stephen Prothero’s assertion about religious illiteracy among Americans is a poignant reminder that affiliation with a religious identity does not necessarily equate to comprehension or understanding. Factors such as secularization, educational deficiencies, media representations, and cultural ignorance have contributed to this phenomenon. The implications of religious illiteracy are far-reaching, affecting social cohesion, informed citizenship, and interfaith understanding. Addressing this issue requires collective efforts from educational institutions, media organizations, and communities to promote religious literacy and foster a more empathetic and informed society. By doing so, America can uphold its legacy as a diverse and inclusive nation that respects and celebrates the religious freedom of all its citizens.



Amer, M. M. (2018). Muslim Americans and the media after 9/11: From invisible citizens to visible subjects. Sociology Compass, 12(4), e12577.

Djupe, P. A., & Calfano, B. R. (2021). Evangelicals and politics in the age of Trump: From “Soul Searching” to “Sub-Tweeting.” Religions, 12(6), 419.

Eck, D. L. (2020). Interfaith Encounters: Religion and pluralism in a globalizing world. Beacon Press.

Eskridge, C. W. (2021). Teaching religion in the primary grades. Religion & Education, 48(1), 1-16.

Fasching, D. J., & deChant, D. (2022). Comparative religious ethics: A narrative approach to global ethics. Wiley.

Green, J. C. (2019). Religious literacy and the possibility of a civil society. Social Education, 83(1), 10-14.

Kirkpatrick, A. (2023). Religious prejudice and discrimination: The role of social identity, perceived threat, and intergroup contact. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 15(2), 180-189.

Lindsay, D. M. (2019). What schools teach us about religion: Misconceptions and possibilities. Harvard Education Press.

Prothero, S. (2018). Religious literacy: What every American needs to know–and doesn’t. HarperOne.

Putnam, R. D., & Campbell, D. E. (2020). The still deepening American religious recession. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 59(3), 397-405.

Smith, C. A. (2022). Religious diversity and religious literacy in the United States. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication.