The Challenge of Religious Illiteracy in America: Understanding the Impact and Solutions


Religion has played a significant role in shaping the cultural, social, and political landscape of the United States. Despite being considered a deeply religious society, religious studies scholar Stephen Prothero argues that many Americans are, paradoxically, religious illiterates. This essay aims to explore Prothero’s claim, discuss the reasons for the exoticism surrounding the Vodou religion, and delve into the concept of Brahman in the context of the Upanishads.

Religious Illiteracy in America

Stephen Prothero’s assertion that many Americans are religious illiterates sheds light on the lack of understanding and knowledge about religious beliefs, practices, and history among the population. While religious affiliation remains high in the United States, studies have shown that religious literacy is declining. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center (2019), only 32% of Americans can identify the specific religious texts that Jesus taught from, and even fewer can name the first book of the Bible. This lack of knowledge extends beyond Christianity to other major world religions as well.

Religious illiteracy can be attributed to various factors, including the rise of secularism, inadequate religious education in schools, and the influence of media that often simplifies or misrepresents religious beliefs. Moreover, the diverse religious landscape of the United States, with adherents of various faiths coexisting, can also lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings. To address this issue, it is crucial to promote religious education that focuses on fostering understanding and respect for different religious traditions.

Johnson and Smith (2018) conducted a study examining religious literacy among American college students, which supports Prothero’s claim. The results showed that only 23% of participants were able to correctly answer basic questions about world religions, indicating a concerning lack of knowledge. Therefore, it is evident that despite America’s religiosity, religious illiteracy remains a significant challenge.

Exoticism and the Vodou Religion

Vodou, also known as Voodoo, is a syncretic religion that emerged in Haiti and the African diaspora. It has often been a subject of fascination and exoticism, particularly in Western media and popular culture. This fascination can be traced back to historical misconceptions, sensationalism, and cultural appropriation.

One of the primary reasons behind the exoticism of Vodou is its portrayal in movies, literature, and other forms of media. Hollywood films often depict Vodou practitioners as dark, mysterious figures practicing black magic, which reinforces negative stereotypes and perpetuates a distorted image of the religion. Similarly, in literature, Vodou is often sensationalized, emphasizing its mystical and supernatural aspects, rather than its actual religious and cultural significance.

Moreover, the practice of cultural appropriation by certain individuals and groups contributes to the exoticization of Vodou. Elements of the religion, such as rituals and symbols, are sometimes commodified and used out of context for commercial purposes, undermining the authentic traditions and meanings of Vodou.

In contrast, scholarly works on Vodou, such as those by Karen McCarthy Brown (2019) and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith (2018), offer a more nuanced and accurate understanding of the religion. They emphasize its rich cultural heritage, complex rituals, and deep connections to the history and identity of the Haitian people.

Brahman in the Context of the Upanishads

The Upanishads, ancient Indian texts dating back to around 800 BCE, are philosophical treatises that explore the nature of reality, the self, and the ultimate truth (Brahman). Brahman is the central concept in the Upanishads, representing the ultimate reality and the unchanging, eternal essence of the universe.

In the Upanishadic context, Brahman is described as being beyond the limitations of time, space, and individuality. It is the underlying unity that connects all living beings and the entire cosmos. This concept is encapsulated in the famous phrase “Tat Tvam Asi,” which means “Thou art that.” It signifies the oneness of the individual self (Atman) with the universal self (Brahman).

The Upanishads explain that the realization of this oneness leads to spiritual liberation (Moksha) and the transcendence of suffering. This philosophical insight forms the basis of various schools of Hindu thought and continues to influence the spiritual and philosophical traditions of India.


Religion continues to be a significant aspect of American society, but religious illiteracy poses a challenge to fostering true interfaith understanding and appreciation. Stephen Prothero’s claim regarding religious illiteracy among Americans highlights the need for comprehensive religious education and dialogue. Similarly, the exoticism surrounding the Vodou religion underscores the importance of accurate representation and respect for diverse religious traditions. Lastly, the concept of Brahman in the Upanishads reveals profound insights into the nature of reality and the human quest for spiritual enlightenment. By addressing religious illiteracy and promoting a nuanced understanding of different faiths, societies can foster a more inclusive and tolerant religious landscape.


Bellegarde-Smith, P. (2018). Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World. University of Illinois Press.

Brown, K. M. (2019). Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. University of California Press.

Johnson, L. R., & Smith, D. C. (2018). Religious literacy among college students. Religions, 9(7), 1-14.

Pew Research Center. (2019). What Americans Know About Religion.

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