Religious literacy

US Airways flight diverted after passenger “caught” praying.

How’s that for a headline? Let’s go with our gut reaction – it was a Muslim, wasn’t it?


Jewish prayer flight diversion

Those lines are lifted from the news story. What kind of a person wraps straps around his head to pray? Jews, that’s who. Observe:

Yeah. A plane was diverted because the flight crew was concerned that a passenger was praying. As it turns out, Orthodox Jews wrap their arm with a black strap and tie a small box to their heads. The accoutrement is called tefillin, and it’s actually pretty cool. The box contains scripture verses, and the arrangement of the straps on the fingers actually looks like Hebrew letters.

Two important take-aways:

1. I’m sure that the young Jewish man’s response to the flight attendant was “I’m praying.” The tone was probably the same as it would be if I was asked why I was breathing air: “I need oxygen to live.” Such responses should be the end of conversations. Why on earth anybody would be worried about a 17-year-old boy wrapping a leather strap around his head is beyond me. Are we really that scared of the unknown?

2. The more important issue here is something that we refer to in the interfaith education sphere as religious literacy. Stephen Prothero addresses our shortcomings in his book by the same name (Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know – And Doesn’t). Americans are woefully ignorant of traditions not their own. An incident like the aforementioned “prayer alert” is evidence of this. Also germane to our social, theological, ecological, and political processes, we are woefully ignorant of our own traditions.

Religious literacy looks like a hot-button issue from the air. We are concerned about schooling people, especially young people, about religion in general because it rubs against our wall of separation between church and state. Maybe some of that friction is good – we’d stop having silly incidents like these.

Prayers have power, but they’re not a security issue. We should learn this.

NB: If you really want to read the news coverage of this non-event-event, the BBC and NYTimes both have it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *