Why is anyone surprised at the findings of a new survey of American religious knowledge, released last week by the Pew Forum, which demonstrate that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the religious do? The only religious groups comparable to atheists in general religious knowledge are Jews and Mormons. Atheists even know more about Christianity than American Christians.
I find this totally predictable, because most atheists today (this may not be true a generation from now) were raised in some religious tradition and found it wanting. What do you do when you are unsatisfied with the religious answers you are getting? You start reading about religion. You start investigating other religions. And eventually, if you read enough, you may find yourself agreeing with Thomas Paine, who declared in The Age of Reason (1793), “My own mind is my own church.” But, by the time you are through reading a lot of those supposedly sacred books that contradict one another while proclaiming that they possess absolute truth, you tend to have learned a lot about various religious beliefs.
Atheists and agnostics, like Jews, are much more highly educated than the general American public, and the survey found a strong correlation between level of education and religious knowledge (among the religious as well as the nonreligious).
To answer the questions asked by the Pew Forum does not, shall we say, require a knowledge of rocket science. Fewer than half of Americans, for example, know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation. (Only 47 percent of Protestants could come up with the correct answer.) Just as stunning, only 45 percent of Americans can name the four Gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. About half of Americans don’t know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist, that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday, or that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments. Is the Pope Catholic? That’s one question the Pew forum apparently didn’t ask. Catholics, by the way, know less about Christianity than practically everyone. My two favorite factoids about religious ignorance among the religious are (a) 43 percent of Jews do not know that Maimonides, one of the most respected rabbis and philosophers in history, was Jewish and (b) 45 per cent of Catholics do not know their church teaches that the Communion bread and wine become the actual, not the symbolic, body and blood of Jesus.
There is nothing new about these findings. All public opinion polls take during the past 20 years show that American religious literacy, like general cultural literacy, has declined. The Pew researchers included nine general knowledge questions in the 41-question survey, and those who did best on the general queries also did best on the religious questions. People with a college education did better than those with only a high school education. Overall, atheists and agnostics led the field (correctly answering an average of 20.9 questions out of 41), followed closely by Jews and Mormons. White evangelical Protestants were fourth, at 17.6, followed by white Catholics with 16 right answers, white mainline Protestants, “nothing in particulars,” black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics.
Among Christians, only evangelicals and Mormons (both of whom provide much more intensive Bible education than Catholics or most Protestant denominations) knew more about the Bible and Christianity than atheists did.
One of the survey’s most interesting findings is that most Americans have an exaggerated view of constitutional restrictions on teaching about religion in public schools. Nine out of ten correctly answered that the Supreme Court has forbidden teachers to lead public school classes in prayer. But fully two-thirds also thought that public schools are forbidden to teach about the Bible as literature and to discuss its historic role in various countries. About the same proportion believes, incorrectly, that comparative religion may not be discussed in public schools. What this tells me is that the religious right has done an excellent job, from its own standpoint, in blurring the distinction between advocating for a particular religion and discussing religion as a historical force.
I should say that I do not think the proper remedy for this religious ignorance is teaching about religion in public schools. Stephen Prothero, in his book Religious Literacy (2007) argues on behalf of a public school curriculum designed to acquaint children with the basic teachings and historical role of a wide variety of the world’s religions. I consider it naive, in a society in which religion is such a culturally divisive force, to think that ordinary public school teachers could discuss religion in a manner that would not lead to fistfights at school board meetings. If I’m a Jew, do I want an ordinary Christian schoolteacher explaining the religious roots of anti-Semitism to my child? Can most American teachers give an “objective” account of Islam’s role in history? How many of those people who don’t know that Martin Luther was a key figure in the Reformation are teachers, anyway? Quite apart from the question of religious divisiveness, it is hard to see how public schools that are having such trouble imparting the basics of reading, science and mathematics to American children can be expected to take on yet another subject–about which educators, like the public, know even less.
It’s not that I don’t mourn the loss of religious literacy, as I mourn the loss of every form of cultural literacy. As full of abominable absurdities as it is of soaring verse and nonreligious emotional truth, the Bible is as much a part of the furniture of my mind as Shakespeare and much of the greatest Western literature. My reading in and knowledge of Eastern religions came much later, but I feel that they too have added greatly to my general cultural knowledge, in that they are every bit as irrational as the sacred texts of western monotheistic religions.
The loss of religious literacy is really just one part of the decline of what used to be a common core of knowledge–involving both past and present. Is it any more or less of a tragedy that Americans are as ignorant about Shakespeare as they are about the Bible? Is it any more or less of a tragedy that we know as little about the Noble Truths of Buddhism as we do about the general history of Asia?
Two-thirds of Americans, according to studies conducted over the past 20 years by the National Science Foundation, cannot identify DNA as the genetic foundation of life, the key to what makes each of us a unique human being. Let the schools succeed in inculcating that undisputed fact before they start delving into the myths that comprise every one of the world’s religions. It is perfectly clear, however, that both parents and religious institutions are doing a terrible job of educating their young in the truths they hold dear. I regret this dumbing-down of religion profoundly, because religious education is one of the most effective tools ever devised for creating religious skeptics.