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Many Americans Know Little About Religion -- Even Their Own -- Poll Finds

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How much does it matter that most Americans don't know that Maimonides was Jewish? Or that most of us do not know that most people in Indonesia -- the world's largest mostly Muslim nation -- are Muslim? Or that Protestants (and not Catholics) are taught that salvation comes through "faith alone"?

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.

martin lutherMaybe 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. That was certainly the premise for Boston University professor Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't." He wrote that "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion."

But there hasn't been a ton of research to back up Prothero's claim. Enter the good folks from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. They commissioned a national poll with the goal of providing "a baseline measurement of how much Americans know about religion today." The results of that poll were released Tuesday. And Prothero was one of the experts who helped them craft their queries.

Regular readers of my work know I like the Pew folks a lot. But I'm not totally loving this particular report. Oh, the methodology is fine. But I wonder about the questions. Too many read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit. Too many check the recognition of names or facts without offering much obvious insight into how people understand their faith or the faith of others.

I suppose it's interesting that only 8 percent of Americans knew that the 12th-century scholar Maimonides was Jewish. And I guess it's surprising that only half of those surveyed know the Muslim sacred text is the Koran. (Heck, even the idiots who want to burn it know what it's called.)

And maybe it's just that I've been writing about religion so long that makes me shocked that four in 10 Catholics polled said their church teaches the consecrated bread and wine at Mass is only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. (That the host and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ is central to Catholic teaching. The big word is "transubstantiation." )

And I'll admit that I goggled a bit to find that more people could identify Zeus as the king of the Greek gods (65 percent) than could name Joe Biden as vice president of the United States (59 percent). Are there that many "Percy Jackson" fans out there?

I found a couple of the religion/politics questions more interesting than those that probed specific religious knowledge. I was troubled at the glass-half-emptiness of some of the responses.

For instance: About three in 10 missed a multiple choice question about what the U. S Constitution says about religion. The right answer was "The government shall neither establish a religion nor interfere with the practice of religion." That's a lot of people who don't know about the First Amendment.

And while only one in 10 didn't know a public school teacher is not allowed to lead a class in prayer, almost seven in 10 didn't know that it's legal for the same teacher to read the Bible in class as literature.

Enough of my quibbling. Here are some of the other questions. How would you have done?

What is the first book of the Bible? (63 percent of Americans knew it's Genesis.)

Name the Gospels. (45 percent of everyone surveyed could reel off all four.)

Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? (71 percent -- but only 65 percent of Catholics -- knew it's Bethlehem. Is it really possible that there's a place where 30 percent of America isn't forced to listen to piped-in Christmas carols? "O Little Town of . . .")

Was Mother Teresa Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon? (82 percent of everyone surveyed -- but only 66 percent of black Protestants -- knew she was Catholic.)

What is the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Reformation? Luther, Aquinas or Wesley? (Only 46 percent chose Martin Luther.)

Was Joseph Smith Mormon, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu? (About half knew the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was Mormon.)

Is Ramadan the Islamic holy month, the Hindu festival of lights or a Jewish day of atonement? (About half knew this was the Muslim holy month.)

Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam? (Only 36 percent knew this is a Buddhist concept.)

Which group traditionally teaches that salvation is through faith alone? Protestants, Catholics, both or neither? (Only 16 percent tagged this as a Protestant teaching. But Jews and the religiously unaffiliated were more likely than Catholics and almost as likely as Protestants to get this one right.)

That last question is representative of an interesting trend: Jews, Mormons and the religiously unaffiliated got more answers right than other religious groups, all other factors being equal. In fact, atheists/agnostics answered more questions correctly than any other group.

The most important factor in whether people knew stuff was, not shockingly, their level of education. College grads and people who had taken courses in religion did much better.

Maybe I'm being too critical of the questions. One can make the case that someone who doesn't know some of the basic names and facts about a faith probably doesn't understand the essentials of that belief.

You can read the whole report for yourself here. And you can take a 15-question version of the quiz here.

Follow me on Twitter at JeffreyWeissPD. Please.

Filed Under: Religion, Joe Biden, Culture, Islam

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"And maybe it's just that I've been writing about religion so long that makes me shocked that four in 10 Catholics polled said their church teaches the consecrated bread and wine at Mass is only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. (That the host and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ is central to Catholic teaching. The big word is "transubstantiation." )" I'm not Catholic, so I got that question wrong. I also assumed it was symbolic. My reasoning is: Why is that big word, "transubstantiation" needed if you are already saved and Christ already resides in you. Is what Christ gives us of himself not enough, and therefore needs to be replenished? Whatever happened to these verses?: Psalms 89:30- "If his children forsake my law, and walk not in my judgments; 31 If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; 32 Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. 33 Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail." And even more to the point: "I will never leave thee." -Hebrews 13:5 "No promise is of private interpretation. To put everything in one, there is nothing you can want, there is nothing you can ask for, there is nothing you can need in time or in eternity, there is nothing living, nothing dying, there is nothing in this world, nothing in the next world, there is nothing now, nothing at the resurrection-morning, nothing in heaven which is not contained in this text-"I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." -C. H. Spurgeon

October 11 2010 at 11:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Message for MAUREEN, The problem in todays religion market is that people feel that they have to belong to one religion or another! The minute you pick a religion, you are identifying yourself as part of their particular philosophys. Number one......there is not anyone religion that is 100% correct. What we have is some religions that are closer to God than others. As far as I am concern I am not a particular religion, but as my pastor said "We are Christ followers!" I have mentioned in the past, that if God was the Sun, some religions would be identified as Mercury, Venus, Earth, etc. The Catholic religion I would put in "Plutos" orbit! Now they tell me that Pluto is not a planet! Go figure? So Maureen, if we don't believe there is a Creator that knew us before we were born.......We have Nothing! There is one "Truth" Let's get as close as we can to it! Your friend, Ladd

September 29 2010 at 10:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The only thing that Evangelicals hate more than the fact that Mormons ranked higher than they did in every category (except one, which they tied), is that Mormons are listed under the category of "Christians." Ha! It seems these Christians might know the Bible better than you think they do...and better than you do. Also, cheers to the Agnostics/atheists and the Jews! Let's push for more education.

September 28 2010 at 9:17 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I am an atheist and knew all the correct answers to the questions posed. Could it be that agnostics/atheists knew more about the specifics of different religions because they had researched those religions, to better define their relationship with God, Jehova, Allah, etc ad infinitum,and found them all wanting. I know that I was raised Methodist and found that the 10 commandments seemed more like a list of common sense ideas, that for their time were probably quite revolutionary. I looked into other teachings of the church and found them to be not so logical and eventually decided that religion wasn't for me. I have found quite a few people who are ardent believers know very little about there respective faith and misqoute/misintepret scripture frequently. I say believe what you want to, but be tolerant of others.

September 28 2010 at 7:38 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to gregreveal's comment

If you will pardon me one question: With all due respect; wouldn't looking into The Bible (God's Word) serve you with more complete answers than "looking into" into an endless list of "man-made" secular religions and rules made up by none other than man, himself? Why in the world bother with "God" if man already has all the answers? It sounds as if the Bible was used as a "Reference" instead of God's Word to make your decision regarding your future. I can certainly see why people would throw up their hands in that case. Sincerely, AP

October 12 2010 at 12:02 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

This quiz doesn't test your knowledge about your own religion... it tests what you know about world religions in general? How is that indicative about how much people understand their own religions? If I'm a Catholic, what does my knowing that most of Pakistan is Muslim have anything to do with the depth of knowledge I possess about my own religion?

September 28 2010 at 7:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If you want results you believe and act on your faith based on the word of God. Either you believe or you doubt.

September 28 2010 at 5:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

We're all going to be praying to God when America is overpopulated and unrecognizable in the 21st century.

September 28 2010 at 5:43 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Faith is believing in something that rational tells you is balogna. Some believe in a literal Garden of Eden, tht the snake in the tree was the devil, though it isn't identified as such in the bible, that a man can survive 3 days in the belly of a whale, that the sun can be made to stand still, people raised from the dead, water turned to wine, a 14 yr old Jewish girl had a baby tht didn't have a daddy, and on and on. Then they look at the mythology of other reliegions and find them unbelievable. Very odd, very odd indeed. Incidentally, the Egyptians had a sect 2000 years before Jesus that said, there was a virgin birth, that he was a demigod, just like Jesus in that he had a god for a daddy, and his birthday was 4 days before the winter solstice, or December 25th. The Jews were out of Egypt, or more accurately, the Land of Goshen which was at the Headwaters of the Nile river or just a bit West of there near the Sinai Penninsulia. The upshot of all this is that every religious person in the world believes their religion is the one true religion and everyone else is either not going to heaven, will be a second class citizen there, or damn lucky to get in.

September 28 2010 at 2:23 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

It is no surprise that there is Religion Congruence fallacy. Each successive generation has become more 'ignorant' of religious precepts/ dogma as religion has taken a diminishing role as the main vehicle of population social behavioral control. Most people assume the religious label their parents had without much (if any)critical thought (analagous to most political beliefs also) and become members of their tribal sect. Think of religions as the nine dot exercise that keeps people from thinking outside the invisible box that each respective religion constructs to keep the people socially contained and controlled. Religions were formulated by men to provide a social moral code, whether followed or not, as this article aptly ponts out. The research results are a reflection of peoples growing ability through technological means and disassociation from religion as the driving force in their lives to now being driven by "self". The self driving is directly correlated to the change in humans time needed to provide for their basic needs and survival as well as increased life expectancy (Biblical Genesis ages notwithstanding). As people gain leisure from techonological means and advances they can 'think' more about things. When they do, they realize there isn't much of a correlation and start to wonder more about 'the man behind the curtain' (those wearing holy robes et al) a la Wizard of Oz. The controllers then utilize different institutional mechanisms (Mass Media, Educational systems) to reign in true independence and greater self knowledge and awareness of their surroundings, and in turn replace it with a construct of a new narrative (socio economic consumerism), educated idiots who adopt indoctrination beliefs: Gaia worship (green crowd), political correctness (Fabian Socialism), diversity for diversity's sake without critical thought and merit (Communism/Bolshevism) the list goes on and on. Religion is another way of mankind providing a way to soften the harsh realities of the earthly realm from the majority of people and gloss them over and accept a subservient role to other men. Read: H L Mencken's - Treatise on the Gods, poet Ezra Pound, Mark Twain. Organized religion is simply that - a socially organizing element. When religions espouse beliefs that enable, enrich, heal and console people they are positive. When they espouse hate, double standards of behavior to others, demean, degrade and destroy they are negative. Where does your's lie?

September 28 2010 at 2:04 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to borodinrodin's comment

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.

September 28 2010 at 2:18 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Religion is the refuge of people who lack faith in an invisable God. They create an elaborate mythology to establish a human link to the divine. It would be easier to just have faith in God and to try your best to live by the golden rule. But, it's asking alot to have people think for themselves.

September 28 2010 at 1:56 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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