What Do You Know About Religion?

| 10/1/2010 3:18:29 PM

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:

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.

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.

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

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