Still, as Steven Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, writes, it is very odd that “those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God’s gift to humanity.”
No, it isn’t “very odd.” It isn’t odd at all. Let’s think about this. First of all, many of the people who think “religion is a con” are surprisingly obsessed with the subject, and some of them spend an inordinate amount of time railing against it. It seems reasonable that they would pick up at least some superficial knowledge of the details, if only as a means for making fun of religious beliefs in great detail. Most believers don’t think “religion” is God’s gift to humanity. They will probably say that they regard the religion they profess to be God’s gift, and for the most part will be indifferent to or uninterested in the others.
Some of the more interesting findings concern what Americans don’t know about their own religions’ teachings. The 45% of American Catholics who don’t know Catholic Eucharistic teaching sounds surprisingly high, but then you consider the state of the American Catholic Church, the preoccupations of many American Catholic bishops, and the extent to which American Catholics have become fully Americanized and to some extent Protestantized in their cultural and religious habits and it doesn’t seem surprising at all. After all, how are these Catholics going to know these teachings if many of their hierarchs and priests aren’t teaching them on a regular basis? Along the same lines, the minority of Protestants that cannot identify Martin Luther as the first major Reformed theologian doesn’t really surprise me. How many Protestant chuches put that much of an emphasis on church history? How central to modern Protestant religious practice is knowledge about the early Reformers? My impression is that it is not particularly important. These results don’t tell us as much as some people seem to think that they do.
The farther afield into world religions one goes, the more one is going to find that Americans are no more knowledgeable about the religions of the rest of the world than they are about anything else in the rest of the world. A nation that cannot locate Iraq on a map is not a nation that is going to know the religious demographics of Asian countries about which they know even less than Iraq. I’m not excusing the ignorance, but I also don’t assume that the fact that most Americans regularly attend church has any relationship to whether or not they can recognize Hindu deities. Being religious and having extensive academic religious knowledge are very, very different things, and religion professors should be among the first to know and to emphasize this.
The Pew survey report does contain these crucial points:
Data from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.
Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family. People who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely or never discuss religion. People with the highest levels of religious commitment – those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives – generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment.
Put another way, people who have spent more time finding out about religion, pay more attention to religion and take a greater interest in religion are better informed about religion. That isn’t exactly breaking news. We would presumably find similar gaps in knowledge about politics between politically engaged and politically apathetic citizens, and the same would go for pretty much every other subject.
This discussion interests me because I came to Christianity from a thoroughly secular background by way of a fairly extensive self-education in religious texts of all sorts. Viewed one way, I was extremely well-informed about world religions by the time I was 20. As I look at it now, I was still stunningly ignorant of the most important Truth of all. By the time I was a sophomore in college, I am fairly sure I could have answered all of these questions correctly, but what would that have shown? It showed that I was a religion major and had read many books. That’s all very well, but that knowledge didn’t mean that I understood anything that really mattered.