The state of religious illiteracy in the U.S.

August 25, 2007 | By | 8 Replies More

In Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t (2007), Stephen Prothero’s describes the United States is described as the most religious nation in the developed world.  Prothero also describes Americans as “the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world.”

How ignorant are Americans? It’s shocking.  Here is how the Washington Post summed up the statistics:

According to polls conducted by the National Constitution Center, only one third of Americans can name even one of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Is it any more startling that only one third can identify the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount?

A 2005 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that nearly two-thirds of Americans endorse the simultaneous teaching of creationism and evolution in public schools. How can citizens know what creationism means, or make an informed decision about whether it belongs in classrooms, if fewer than half can identify Genesis? No doubt the same proportion of Americans think that Thomas Edison said, “Let there be light.”

Approximately 75 percent of adults, according to polls cited by Prothero, mistakenly believe the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves.” More than 10 percent think that Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc. Only half can name even one of the four Gospels, and — a finding that will surprise many — evangelical Christians are only slightly more knowledgeable than their non-evangelical counterparts.

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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    This is the stuff that gets politicians their wet dreams. You can do almost anything with an electorate that ignorant.

  2. Edgar Montrose says:

    Well, this answers the question that I attempted to address here (http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1524#comment-14020) better than I did. The answer to how to deal with opponents who "fight so dirty" is to use their ignorance against them. Know their subject better than they do (apparently not a difficult thing), and use that knowledge to counter any argument they offer.

  3. Ebonmuse says:

    I don't think it's a matter of much concern that Americans don't know much about the Bible. What is alarming is that so many people still want to make their moral and political judgments on the basis of a book they don't know anything about. It makes it far too easy for religious demagogues to lead them around by the nose as long as they claim that whatever they're saying is rooted in God's word.

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I realized long ago that most atheists know more about the bible than most of the religious moralists. This is because an atheist can read the bible objectively, without trying to read in the current political views.

    Many religious people have never read the bible straight through. Instead they have read disjoined passages taken from their original context and placed in another context as prescribed by the dogma of the particular sect of their choosing.

  5. Xiaogou says:

    This is actually a very good article for atheists to read. It shows the heart of the problem with religion today in America. The Bible is a difficult read at best and hard to understand not because it is a bad book, but much of what is written has deeper meanings than what is at the surface. So, what happens is that the religious people and many atheists, as I gather, instead uses religious practices and a “cliff note” Bible as their source of understanding of what is Christianity. Unfortunately, what then ensues is banter between two groups that have no idea what they are talking about. The bad part of the article is that what both parties now need to do to start remedying the problem is to read the Bible in depth, weed out the religious practices and misinformation, and understand what Christianity is. It cannot be done by one or the other group both have to be able to understand and work on the problem. The deeply entrenched religious community has had 2000 years to build up their dogmatic views and it may take equally long to unravel the mess it has created, but with love and persistence it can be done.

  6. Jason Rayl says:

    Niklaus & Xiaogou,

    The reason most atheists know more about the Bible is because they probably have actually READ IT, as opposed to receiving it orally through Sunday School lectures or over the dinner table at home. Reading the Bible is historically a dicey thing in christianity, at some periods cause for legal action against nonclerics who had the temerity to read it.

    Having read it, people like me realize what is actually in it instead accepting the happy, happy Good News back-cover blurb.

    I would make some observation here about how reading anything in this country is a problematic issue at best, but I already commented on that in a regular post.

    But once you read tbe Bible, you are confronted with the fact that it is not one book, but many, and they weren't all written with a single objective in mind. They were written at different times, with different agendas, often conflicting political and moral messages, and later stitched together and presented as some kind of syncretic whole that supposedly imparted a single message. The "deeper meaning" is the fact that there isn't one, just a congealed mass of earnest assertion. The Main Character doesn't even seem to be the same one through the whole thing, and some books don't even refer to him.

    What American christians are about—the ones who are represented by the original article, that is—is taking what they were raised with and through loud, constant assertion claiming they know the truth. Why? Because they (these christians) aren't "like" all those other people over there they don't like—atheists, sure, but mainly liberals, gays, polyamorists, Catholics, Jews, democrats, and intellectuals.

  7. Xiaogou says:

    Jason, in my dealings with atheists is that many of them have not read the Bible. Instead, what they have learned of Christianity is obtained verbally, through observance of Sunday school lectures, over the dinner table talks at Christian homes and from hate propaganda. The Bible does lay down a certain reality of what it is to be a Christian and it was forbidden by various religious groups in history. If the masses actually read the Bible they would revolt against the church and tear it down. The Bible is definitely not a “happy, happy, joy, joy” book. I have met several “religious” people who look down on me because I read the book of Dianetics, Tanach, Torah, and I-Qing. I even get mocked by these “religious” people for wearing jade bead bracelet (a Buddhist thing and looks cool.)

    It is a guarantee that every generation that passes new problems arises that needs to be addressed. Just as each generation of Americans needs to address new problems and political views. Just a few generations ago it was o.k. to kill the so and so group. Then today we are good friends with them and today we are in Afghanistan and Iraq. Who knows, in a few generations we may be at peace with them. When we don’t change for the better than problems arises. There are still certain hate groups around the world that hate what the other people did to them some hundreds of years ago to some long since dead ancestor. Since America over time has conflicting political and moral messages throughout our history do we dump our history books and rewrite a new happy history? Or do we look deeper and find some kind of syncretism of the whole of American history and find a common thread of thought that will help us build a better future for our future generations.

    A good number of the atheists that I have had the pleasure of talking with assert that they know the truth and have no tolerance for the mystical babbling of Christians. When they actually read the Bible it is not to know what is going on. They have their own agenda with their own political and moral message and read what they want to read of the Bible. Just as many Christians would like to read what they want in the Bible. Then they are more than willing to promote their will over the protests over those they feel superior to. They often put down and mock those who are not like them, such as Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, Spiritualists, The Wicca, Hindu, Gypsies, Native Americans, The Amish, The Shinto, Scientologists, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Trekies, Jar Jar Binks, and much more. The fact is feeling superior to someone else is not exclusively a Christian trait, but a very human trait. The only difference is that Christians use their belief in the Bible as a tool to justify themselves (which by the way is not the way Christians are to act in the Bible), meanwhile atheist use their contention that gods, spirits and invisible friends do not exist and the fact that they are scientific and logical superior as a tool to justify themselves (unfortunately, there is nothing to tell them that they need to be more tolerant. In fact, many of their followeres deify these individuals and they contend that their message is the true message of that their belief is to be promoted over everyone elses beliefs.)

    By the way, there were many Christian in the Democratic Party, and Jews in the Republican Party, so I do not see the reasoning for Christians being against Democrats. Furthermore, if they are Christians should they not hate the Republicans because they have Jewish members, in which case Christians hate all political parties?

    It seems I don’t like atheists. Actually, I know of many atheists who are very intelligent and have read the Bible to understand Christians and many agree that those that you label Christians are far from what it is to be a Christian. On the other hand, a few individuals I talk with say they are Christians, but they told me they were put down in their childhood for being stupid or a loser and now that they have found religion I can see they want to get back at all those scientific people and unfortunately they are hard to talk to and slow to understand that what they do does more harm and not very Christian like. Actually, I know of many more entrenched people who call themselves Christian, but have no concept of the meaning of what is a Christian.

  8. Carmen says:

    Xiaogou:  In your "dealings"? Atheists like myself have to prove to christians what makes them stupid, which is why we read the bible. TO SHOW THEM THAT THEY ARE WRONG. I didn't even bother reading after that.

    Gods can't touch iron; Judges 1:19.

    Jesus killed a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it wasn't in season; Mark 11:13

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