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What Do You Know About Religion?

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: religion, culture, United States, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, atheism, agnosticism, spirituality, Keith Goetzman,

Read the Bible sign

Lots of Americans say they’re religious, but a new poll finds many of them don’t actually know that much about world religions—their own included. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum found that U.S. atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, are actually more conversant than Christians in many faith-related facts.

While that basic takeaway is rich with irony—some of the least religious people know the most about religion—it confirms what some atheists have long suspected, and a few of them are bursting with pride about the results (which for them is not a sin, of course). Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, told Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

That’s not to say that believers don’t know anything about their own faiths, but rather that atheists and agnostics are well versed in a wider range of religious topics. Mormons and evangelical Protestants, for example, are very knowledgable on questions specifically relating to the Bible and Christianity, and atheists and agnostics aren’t far behind. According to the survey results:  

On questions about Christianity—including a battery of questions about the Bible—Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion. 

 Jeffrey Weiss at Politics Daily quibbles with the survey’s approach—“Too many [of the questions] read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit,” he writes—but he notes that the results line up in a way with previous surveys that reveal a related phenomenon:

Academics call it the Religion Congruence Fallacy: In survey after survey, year after year, Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend not to act like it.

To take an easy set of examples: Conservative Protestants are no less likely than other Protestants to have been divorced, to have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, or to be sexually active even if they aren’t married. Even though their church teaches strongly that all three practices are wrong.

Maybe that’s because many of us don’t know all that much about the faith tradition we say we profess—or what makes it distinctive from any other.

Ignorance about our own or other religions is not necessarily an American tradition: As Ted Widmer recently reminded us in the Boston Globe, even the men who wrote the Constitution were quite familiar with the Koran:

As usual, the Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.

Meanwhile, Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century suggests that atheists, agnostics, and Jews shouldn’t get too uppity about their good marks on the religion exam:

Atheists/agnostics and Jews didn’t actually do better on the Christianity questions than Christians did, just nearly as well—and considerably better on all the others. This is perfectly intuitive: minority groups know more about the majority than vice versa, because majority culture tends to define what counts as general knowledge. So most Jews know where Jesus was born, even though few Christians know much about Buddhism. Jesus makes the cover of one general-interest magazine or another ever month or so, and it only takes a couple shopping trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to accidentally memorize the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

What do you know about religion? Take the Pew Forum’s 15-question religious knowledge sample quiz and find out.

Sources: Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, New York Times, Politics Daily, Boston Globe, Christian Century  

Utne Reader editorial intern Will Wlizlo contributed to this post. 

Image by dottorpeni, licensed under Creative Commons.

  

occum
10/7/2010 5:39:38 PM

You write well Rodeen so give yourself the accolade. In fact, I think humility is over rated in many cases. The balance between arogance and humbleness has inspired many a passage, many in the bible. To your question regarding the life guard. In my experience there are two factors that can be mutually exclusive but usually work in concert. Recognition (attention) and empathy. (I footnote my next statement by saying I find fault with neither because they are both basic human characteristics.) Both are self serving. Everyone has vied for attention since they were born. It is necessary to survive, however, as we gain maturity we realize sometimes it works against us. Empathy, on the other hand, derives from the human desire to have others treat us as they would treat themselves. This prophetic statement is why I don't believe a book or other source told us to act this way but our instinct to survive did (which was way before any book was written.) Was there someone up the ladder that instilled that in humans? Maybe. Did we and do we need a reminder of that from time to time. Absolutely. Who does that is the debate. And an interesting one at that. Be well.


rodeen
10/7/2010 11:47:46 AM

No offense taken Occum. A lot gets lost in translation especially because I am such a poor writer. I think you are still missing my main point. I dont care if the life guard goes into the water or not. What interest me is why he would feel the need to.


occum
10/7/2010 10:57:07 AM

Rodeen, I always enjoy our discourse and apologize if some of my wording comes across as offensive, although it is not meant to be. As I enter into discussions such as this my intent is always to understand the processes that people use in their every day decisions and opinions. When I was younger (late teens early twenties) life was relatively uncomplicatd and so my understanding of things was pretty black and white. I still have friends who are like this and I often am envious they retained that simplistic level of thought. However, because of my nature I love to observe and study. As I did this (and still do) I realized the world was a massively complicated place with many ideas dependent on perspective and always changing. The Founding Fathers of our nation understood this and built the foundation of this country on this fact. Which is why The Declaration of Independence is called a living, breathing document. Using that as a basis righteousness must also be a dynamic concept which is why I refrain from using the word. As for the drowning man analogy there is a mantra that every life guard understands deeply and reminds themselves of constantly, You can not save someone if you can't save yourself first. If everyone walks into the fire to save the person burning and they all die what is the point. Sure, it is noble but to what end? Lastly, I am not sure of the connection between Bernie Madoff, the health and wealth element and Christianity. No harm no foul on socialism


rodeen
10/7/2010 8:49:49 AM

Occum, I have to admit I am not sure exactly what were discussing but I'll try to address a few things. First you are I think wrong about the pursuit of righteousness. Second your example is a good one and my arguement is not for the out come of Afflec's decision but what layed behind it. The desire to do the right thing regardless of it was easy or posed more risk. The path you choose is to some degree in signifigant but there is something devine about this deep seeded moral law that lives inside of us all. A man is drowning in stormy waters you have three instincts one is to help the man the other is to protect yourself from danger the third is the one that tells you that you should repress the instinct for self preservation and help the man. Rather you help or not is another thing but the third thing is what lays outside the laws of nature. Sorry to offend your sensibilities about the socialism comment. I made an outrageous connection between the two for the purpose of humor. I guess I missed the mark. Last I will touch on the outrageous connection you are making between Bernie / The Health and Wealth Doctrine/ Christianity. Health and wealth is not the gospel it is a disease that has disgustingly spread across america and we are exporting this crap to 3rd world countries. I pray that doctrine be purged from the world.


ramon sender
10/6/2010 8:16:41 PM

Religion is putting someone else's spiritual experience on a pedestal and worshipping it because you don't know how to get there yourself. Try growing your own at home. And puhleese don't quote statistics! Statistics are the boils on sociology's ass. “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” -- Mark Twain, thinking he is quoting Disraeli.


occum
10/6/2010 5:51:30 PM

Isn't righteous sort of a pompous narcissistic word? Have you seen the movie "Gone Baby Gone?. Casey Affleck makes a decision that seems righteous while at the same time he knows the result will come out wrong. What is right (righteous)? Why would socialism be categorized as wrong, especially when many other countries practice it sucessfully. I grew up in a Irish Catholic Police/Marine Corps. family where the debate over right and wrong often was ultimately grey. There is no one on the face of this earth that knows what happens next or if there will be some sort of judgement. If the stories of heaven and hell are true why can't anyone give details in their depiction. Is there baseball? What is the seating arrangement? Who is in charge of the guy/gal/being in charge? I am all for whatever medium can bring comfort to the sick, relief to the worried or sustain the hope a loved one will be known again. However, I think, it is dangerous, misleading and downright manipulative to feed ideas to people that don't have the ability, desire or where with all to determine their validity or purpose. We are outraged by confidence men like Bernard Madoff for running Ponzi schemes yet tolerant of others that are doing exactly the same. My guess is that if the scam involves enough people for a long enough period of time ego and fear can't hear anything else. Although that confuses me because I thought pride (vanity/ego) was one of the seven deadlies.


rodeen
10/6/2010 1:46:51 PM

Occum, I am glad to see you are on a righteous path! If you agree that there is such a thing as right and wrong then you know although a culture approves of a certain behavior such as canabalism or socialism does not make it right:) We are in large part driven by our instincts survival instincts, and herd instincts but we have another thing which we cant get rid of and that is a thing that tells us when we should surpress an instinct and when we should embrace the instinct. Now we might not listen to that urge but that is a moral law that is not a law of nature. So if morality is real then we need to be interested in where it came from. Remeber Occum, "you do not have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body." CS Lewis


occum
10/6/2010 10:43:23 AM

Rodeen, Let me rephrase my response. I agree numbers can be twisted to prove whatever one wants to believe. Therefore, the data that shows couples who pray together have lower divorce rates may be tainted by any number of variables as can the numbers that show agnotics and atheists having a low divorce rate. I also agree with your appetite statement with the caveat that how and what you eat is dependent on what is acceptable and available to your circumstance. There have been scads of religions and spiritual followings over thousands of years and there will be more in the future no doubt. Were they the compasses of morality or is it possible (in fact likely) that people do the things they do to survive the circumstances of the situation and hopefully proliferate. If you were on an island of cannibals eventually you (or your offsping) would become one and most likely within a reasonable amount of time think nothing immoral about it. I could go on but I will save the forum from my diatribe. Ask yourself this question, though, what if the bible translation was wrong and it turns out end times is really fun times. Will there be a statement issued apologizing?


rodeen
10/6/2010 8:25:52 AM

Kathairein Uhhhh Nope. You mean to tell me you have changed your mind 7 times,and the 8th theory is a charm. Sell that nonsence some place else. Your 8th theory is actually not all that bad in the case that there is no real truth and we are all simply playing make believe.


kathairein magdalena
10/5/2010 7:04:08 PM

I WAS Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Syrian Orthodox, Gnostic, and Buddhist. Now I say ET technology is not "god." Some Great Mystery of Is-ness is "god." The proof of religious belief is living in harmony with All-Our-Relations, planetary and Cosmic. Humans have been deceived.


rodeen
10/5/2010 4:51:31 PM

Occum, You need to dummy your talk down for me a little I am not sure I understand any of what you said. You agree that lust is not more prevalent in rural societies than in the city. Or white people are not inherently more selfish than asians? Or that people from two parent families are less likely to be loyal companions than those that come from one home. I mean you can manipulate variables all day long but we all have an appetite for food some more than others but the appetite exist regardless of your circumstances. Beware this is a risky line of logic.


occum
10/5/2010 3:53:52 PM

The difference in the percentage is significant enough to be annotated in almost all data gathering so I assume it must mean something. The common denominators you mention as leading to divorce are very discriminatory with regard to many varibles. For example rural agrarian families had more children, historically, than city dwellers because of labor needs and no lack of space issues. Conversely, according to GDP studies people have used the same amount of energy (ie whale oil/electricity) to run their lives for as long as recorded history. The point is that people make avail of the tools and dynamics of what they require dependent on need and usefulness. I highly suspect many arguments made regarding topics such as this (Knowing about religion) are more about holding on to conditioned understanding than exploring new ideas and change for a possible better.


rodeen
10/5/2010 11:12:18 AM

Occum, Honestly I am not all that interested in debating the merit of any of these studies. That being said my intial reaction was to agree with you about the various other factors that contribute to divorce but I think most of the common denominators that lead to divorce do not discriminate race, economics, social morals etc. Lust, selfishness, poor communication, lies, and financial tension dont care what color or how much money you have. As far as the study about Christians who pray together that is not compared to anything it is just simply a study that says less than 1% of Christian couples who pray togeter daily get divorced. No punch line that is just it. I dont know about agnostics or atheist I am sure it is fairly consistent with the rest of society if it is lower I specualte the difference to be miniscule and not worthy of examination.


occum
10/5/2010 10:34:57 AM

I will have to assume then that the one percent figure trumps the studies that show the lowest divorce rates are among agnostics ans atheists. Either that or conclude that the divorce rate amongst agnostics and atheists is below 1% which would make it the most astonishing number. I think one will find when looking into these values that education, standard of living and regional culture (getting married at 15) play a larger role in divorce rates than religious standards. As far as what makes one a beleiver or not we should explore Pascals Wager as a topic.


rodeen
10/5/2010 9:28:29 AM

The results of this test dont surprise me in the least. These are mostly the types of people Bill Mayer seeks out to interview. Most americans identify themselves as Chrisitans because they celebrate Christmas. That is like me saying I am in the NFL because I enjoy watching the sport. I know as much about playing in the NFL or less than the guy who goes to church on Christmas and Easter and calls himself a Christian. It is not a title it is a spiritual condition. What really got me fired up about this particular blog is once again a pot shot at Christians by Christian I mean people who believe they need what Jesus Christ did on the cross for eternal salvation and with out that are permanetly separated from God and with out hope. It says that Christians are as likely to get divorced watch porn etc. as seculars. Again I agree with the Christmas tree guy being as likely to watch porn. However less than 1% of Christian couples who pray together get divorced an astonishing figure compared to the rest of society.