So Many Gods, So Little Time

The majority believes. They’re just not that interested in the details.
by Keith Goetzman
January-February 2011

Stephanie Glaros


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Americans have deeply held personal religious beliefs, but a recent survey shows that many of them don’t exactly possess a kingdom of knowledge about religion in general. In fact, atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, handily outscored Christians on many questions about religion in a survey conducted in May and June 2010 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The widely trumpeted proficiency of atheists and agnostics was just one in a string of eyebrow-raising findings from the survey, which posed 32 multiple-choice questions such as When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? What is Ramadan? and Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

The mainstream media covered the poll’s overall findings, but after the initial splash the story passed with very little comment. Parsing the findings again, some notable trends emerged:

Vishnu who? Fewer than half of Americans know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, only 38 percent correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism, and only about a quarter know that most Indonesians are Muslims.

Church and state confusion. Nine out of ten people correctly affirm that U.S. Supreme Court rulings do not allow teachers to lead public school classes in prayer—the question most often answered correctly on the survey. But beyond this, things go downhill fast. One of the questions people most often got wrong is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Two-thirds of respondents said no, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic” qualities as part of a secular curriculum. Only 36 percent of respondents knew that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools.

Because the Bible tells me so. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say they read the Bible or other holy scriptures at least once a week outside of church. But Americans in general are much less inclined to read other books about religion. Nearly half (48 percent) of religious people say they seldom or never read non-scriptural books or visit websites about their own religion, and 70 percent say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.

Higher learning, higher power. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right, on average, than do people with less education. Those who have taken a religion course in college tend to know their religion facts better.

The upshot of all of this, it seems, is that religious righteousness is not always backed up by scholarship, and the two may in fact have an inverse relationship. At the very least, it may make believers think twice before tangling with an atheist over a particular Bible passage.

Some Christian media commentators responded to their overall lackluster performance by pointing out that members of minority religious groups are of course more likely to know about the dominant religion than vice versa—and while this is true, others were chastened.

“The real shame here isn’t that non-Christians know our tradition almost as well as we do,” wrote Steve Thorngate on the Christian Century website. “It’s that we know so little about others.”

 

To take a Pew Forum mini-quiz on your religious knowledge, go to http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/index.php 


jan-feb-2011-cover-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the January-February 2011 issue of Utne Reader.


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Post a comment below.

 

roberta meyer
2/1/2011 12:49:36 PM
during my search for God,i read the Koran as well as other written and spoken words by others on thier quest. the two main differences between the Muslim faith and the Chistian faith that the Koran never mentions love. yes the love that is so freely given by God through His gift of His Son who so freely gave His all on the cross. the other is that the God of Chistianity knows who i am, in fact He knew me before i was born came looking for me andcalled me by name.

rodeen
1/27/2011 8:42:32 AM
Things that should go with out saying should usually be said. So for the record I think we can all agree Hitler was not a Christian. There is a great book on this I beleive called, Inside the Third Reich.

rodeen
1/27/2011 8:19:41 AM
Dan, Why do you care? I have a close Islamic friend he prays for me and I pray for him we both firmly believe the other is going to hell but we still love each other. Fred Phelps stands outside my church almost every Sunday and tells me I'm going to Hell. I could care less. If these people are getting in your face and telling you you are going to hell and that is there only message tell them to go to hell. The point being why do you care if people tell you your going some place you dont even beleive in? At any rate I am glad you came off your postition of supporting Ricardo's ignorant and uninformed post.

Dan Pieniak
1/26/2011 7:25:47 PM
I personally do not have a problemm with churches or GOD, he is a hell of a great guy! What I do have a problem with is his followers. Especially the ones that say that I am going to hell because I do not believe in their God, or go to their church.

rodeen
1/26/2011 1:14:44 PM
You both are in need of some history lessons. Here is one example. Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was asked to account for the great tragedies that occurred under the brutal communist regime he and fellow citizens suffered under. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn offered the following explanation: “ Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.' Since then I have spend well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: 'Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.

Dan Pieniak
1/26/2011 10:52:52 AM
I agree with Ricardo! Few people really think about religion and how it effects the world in a negative way. I mean God was on the side of the Nazis during WWll. And Adolf Hitler was a Christian!

Bob Johnson
1/26/2011 10:41:00 AM
Too bad Deism wasn't mentioned. Particularly in the U.S. since many of America's key founders were Deists such as Thomas Paine who wrote the excellent book on religion, The Age of Reason. Deism simply is the belief in God based on the application of your reason on the designs and order in the Universe. Deists believe these designs point us to our Designer. Deism also rejects all unreasonable claims such as God giving a holy book to the Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc., etc. Progress! Bob Johnson www.deism.com

RICHARD SMALL
1/26/2011 8:56:19 AM
The lack of christian ability to answer questions about religion demonstrates diminished ability to reason, a general lower intelligence and/or a childhood brainwashing that believers of this superstitious nonsense suffer from. The inverse relationship of educated non-religious respondents, compared to believers with less education, upports this conclusion. Religion is the bane of humanity. It causes suffering, death and diminishes enjoyment of life. Religion is at the root of many wars. It instills intolerence that perpetuates political conflicts, like the one that the U.S. suffers from right now. Religion is used as a weapon to gin up fervor for devious causes, like assassinations of physicians treating women for pregnancies. The world would be a much better place without all this mythological drivel permeating our societies.








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