Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Who knew?

The latest Pew Forum survey on religion finds that Americans, while very devout, don't know much about religion. Those who did best in identifying "core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions" - answering on average 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly - were Atheists/Agnostics, with Jews a close second at 20.5; Mormons were third at 20.3. Golly! But what does this tell us?

It gets more interesting as you break it down further, but the main headline shouldn't be surprising. Minorities always have to understand majorities; the contrary doesn't happen - certainly not without concerted efforts at public education. Further, the study finds that education correlates with higher scores, and Atheists/Agnostics and Jews are more educated than the general public. (And note that "Atheist/Agnostic" is a self-identifying, not a default group, distinguished from "Nothing in Particular"; the survey found 212 of the former, 334 of the latter.)

But there's more going on. As study after study shows, religious people generally don't know much about their own traditions either. Should one be surprised that:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly iden- tify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

It's sort of shocking but - to this scholar of religion at least - not surprising. Lived religion and textbook religion are different animals. Indeed, I read about this study shortly after giving a presentation in a class (on population demographics) in which I drove home the "religion is not belief" theme by giving examples like this. I mentioned a finding from an earlier Pew survey you might remember. How many American Catholics were found to believe in reincarnation? More than one-in-four (28%)! "So can you be Catholic and believe in karma?" I asked. And was very pleased when someone answered: "Yes."

I'm not advocating ignorance. I'm appalled at this, for instance:

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