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

4 years ago
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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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