The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


Posted by Ron George on October 18, 2010


'Indifference' by Ivan C., 2009

‘Indifference’ by Ivan C., 2009


The news seemed to be that agnostics and atheists have more general knowledge of religion than  believers of all sorts. That was the headline, anyway. From this armchair, however, the headline looks somewhat different: It’s simply astonishing how indifferent to religion American society seems to be, based on the recent “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Overall, a representative national sample of about 3,400 people answered just half of 32 questions asked; questions such as, “What is the first book of the Bible” and multiple-choice questions on the religious affiliations of Mother Theresa, Joseph Smith and the Dalai Lama. (Here’s an online quiz of 15 questions taken from the poll.)

Even smarty-pants non-believers answered just 21 of the questions correctly, no better than a D by any measure. Jews and Mormons were almost in a dead heat for second and third place. White mainline Protestants, of which I am a sometime member, finished sixth just ahead of a curiously named group, “nothing in particular.” Our evangelical brethren were just a step or two ahead of us. Just two percent of the sample missed four or fewer questions. The inescapable conclusion is that we Americans are illiterate in what we know about our own and other religious traditions.

The Pew group has sliced and diced this survey very well (find the full report here), but I found little analysis of the poor showing overall: Almost 60 percent of Americans say religion is “very important” to them, and about 40 percent of us attend worship services at least once a week, making us one of the most “religious” nations in the world; and yet, most of us can’t pass a relatively simple test of general religious knowledge. The Pew poll concludes that one’s level of education is the most reliable predictor of performance on this survey; and surprisingly, religious commitment has little to do with performance. Perhaps general failure in this particular test of knowledge says more about our educational system than anything else.

( I wonder how a national sample would have fared on a comparable test of political or scientific knowledge. Pew conducted a poll last year on attitudes toward science, and it included a knowledge test. And here’s a recent political knowledge update.)

I’m jumping to a conclusion about our national indifference to religion, but I don’t think it’s an unfair leap. My guess is we’d find similar indifference toward science and politics, and I have no idea why that should be so. Perhaps it’s because we’re caught up or distracted by other interests; say, trying to make ends meet in a wretched economy and/or making sure our families are clothed, housed and fed and/or seeing to the well-being of aging parents or handicapped family members. Perhaps it’s not indifference at all but a matter of priorities.

That, however, doesn’t make our general level of ignorance less of a problem. Ignorant societies make huge political misjudgments because they’re easily deceived by disinformation of the sort to which we’ve grown all too accustomed over the past 30 years. Ignorant societies are easily polarized into ideological camps that short-circuit the kind of civil discourse required for an effective body politic. Ignorant societies are easily driven by fear, especially fear of the unknown, be that the foreigner’s socio-political assumptions, religion, ethics and economics, or even simple change, which is the staple of life on this planet.

There may be a remedy for all of this, but we’ve yet to find it. If a proposal for, say, teaching history of religions in public schools comes from the wrong quarter – a liberal Protestant, for example – then the predictable outcome will be fear-driven, ideological diatribe from the “other side,” whatever that happens to be. If the proposal comes from “the other side,” then we liberal Protestants will be equally suspicious and susceptible to fear-driven diatribe from our end of the spectrum. In the end, nothing gets done.

So, exactly what is the cost of most Americans not knowing or not caring about the other guy’s faith? It’s hard to say, but there are symptoms of it abroad in the land; for example, the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” a controversy in New York City borne almost entirely upon an unwillingness to have constructive conversation rather than divisive confrontation. And why did it pose such a problem for the Army to accept Sikh volunteers for military service? My guess is that overwhelming fear and general ignorance of religion drove these controversial issues and set us against one another for no good reason. (The Army seems to have resolved the Sikh matter, but ignorance of Sikh religion continues to create social hostility in the United States. My next-door neighbors are Sikhs, but they keep it mostly to themselves and shun traditional attire. “You know how it goes,” said the father of two adorable children. He smiled, but pain shone through his eyes.)

Once upon a time, at Claremont Elementary School in Arlington, Va., my favorite fellow student was Stephen Schecter, who was as smart as I wanted to be. One day at the school library – it was about 1956 – we were perusing a book about religion. We flipped through the pages, and when we came to a picture of Jesus, Steve said, “I don’t like him.” What? I protested. That’s Jesus! He’s, well, you know … “I’m a Jew,” Steve said. “We don’t believe in Jesus.” We remained friends, but suddenly there was a void – his knowledge of my religion and mine of his. I don’t recall our ever speaking of it again, and while that proves nothing, it indicates that just a little bit of knowledge on both sides might have meant less of a void in our conversation about religion. Who knows how the overall quality of our relationship might have been enhanced, given just a bit of knowledge about each other’s faith?

I’d like to believe that most Americans are willing to let knowledge conquer their ignorance and love their fear, but frankly, I’m not optimistic. Too much wealth has been invested in keeping us herded and branded in various ideological corrals for there to be much interest in binding us to each other as citizens of a unified nation founded on mutual respect. Our lack of religious knowledge is but a symptom of a much wider and deeper malaise that is consuming us heart, soul, mind and strength.

That malaise is indifference.


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