Americans are ignorant of basic religious teachings

September 29, 2010 | By | 11 Replies More

Lots of people are talking about the new Pew Religious Knowledge Survey, which dramatically demonstrates that Americans are incredibly ignorant about the basic teachings of religions, including the basic teachings of their own religions. These Pew findings don’t surprise me at all. I was raised Catholic and I have knows quite a few Catholics in my life.

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In my experience, most adults Catholics don’t know that the communion host (according to official Catholic teaching) is literally the body of Jesus. Most of them will tell you that it is a symbol, not the real thing. This is incorrect. Here’s another example: Most Catholics will tell you with some certainty that the “Immaculate Conception” refers to the “fact” that Mary gave birth to Jesus even though she never had sex with a man. I challenge you to try this out on Catholics. At least 3 out of 4 will say this, but it is fundamentally incorrect. The “Immaculate Conception” refers to the claim that Mary herself was born without original sin. These are fundamental holdings of the Catholic Church, yet it is a rare Catholic who gets both of these correct. Again, I challenge you to go out on the streets and ask an American Catholic and you’ll see for yourself.

Catholics aren’t alone in being ignorant about their own religion, according to the Pew survey. The members of all religious show a shocking lack of curiosity. And further, most believers are astoundingly ignorant regarding the basic beliefs of other major religions. Ironically, the “religious” group that is best educated regarding the basic holdings of the major religions is “atheist/agnostic.”

These Pew results have caused quite a stir, and they should cause quite a stir, given the extent to which Americans claim that religion is important to them. Author Kenneth Davis is appalled at the hypocrisy:

The results of this survey do not surprise me at all. For all of the talk of America being a “Christian Nation” and being founded on “religious principles,” many Americans are as misinformed about religion as they are about history, basic science and geography. Many people tend to believe what they were told when they were children. That is, sadly, a very incomplete eduction. Few of us seem able to to move past “thinking like a child” and do as Saint Paul said: “When I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13: 11).

Bart Ehrman has pointed out that Americans don’t read the Bible yet they constantly proclaim that it is allegedly important to read the Bible. I’ve pointed out this same inconsistency in previous posts, such as this one. Philosopher Daniel Dennett noted this problem in his book, Breaking the Spell; in fact, after pointing out that believers typically don’t believe in the far-fetched claims of their religions, Dennett argued that they “believe in belief.” They believe that it is important to believe in something, even if it is a claim with no evidentiary basis, even if it is a supernatural claim.

Perhaps Americans refuse to read the Bible because they think that they can always pass Bible quizzes, even by guessing, because of the numerous self-contradictions within.

But more seriously, for a broad view of the problems between believers and non-believers, see my five-part series, Mending Fences. Also consider this proposal for a naturalized “religion” by Stuart Kauffman.

This rampant ignorance (and I’m not exaggerating, it is rampant) should not be excused by the press.  When people start talking about the importance of “God” and “religion,” they should be cross-examined to determine their depth of understanding (or non-understanding).  Simple questions in the form of a pop quiz are often the best.   For example, consider this classic exchange involving Stephen Colbert and a know-nothing member of Congress, which culminates in this question: “Name the Ten Commandments.”

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Category: Religion

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.

Comments (11)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:

    I had a look at the actual questionnaire, and found only two questions in the entire thing that I had any trouble with (aka didn't know or had forgotten). Most I considered embarrassingly easy.

    That Maimonides was Jewish (I had forgotten – but guessed by elimination: Jewish or Hindu was the remaining choice, and that is not a Hindu name!)

    and on the Great Awakening:

    Which one of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as

    the First Great Awakening?

    1 Jonathan Edwards

    2 Charles Finney

    3 Billy Graham

    I knew only that it wasn't Billy Graham (too recent), but I would be guessing which of the other two would be correct (but then, American Religious History did not play any great part in my education).

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    After re-reading the reports about the Pew study and quite a few of the questions, here is my take-away:

    Religion is not what it purports to be. If it were really about a supernatural creator who church-goers really loved, they would take the time to know more about their religions than they knew about movies, television, sports, restaurants, ipods, sex, vacation spots or anything else.

    Most Americans are pathetically unwilling to learn basic beliefs of their own religions, and amazingly unwilling to consider the basic believes of other religions. If they really believed in God, they would shop around to make sure that they followed the right religion, but most of them just take the religion their parents handed to them.

    Once again, my take away is that Religion is not what it purports to be. What is it, really? My best guess is set forth here.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Bill Maher and Bill O'Reilly have a chat about religion:

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  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Daniel Dennett comments on the recent Pew survey demonstrating that numerous believers are willfully ignorant of the basic tenets of religions, including their own religion:

    The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals – all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.

    So what's a religion to do? There are two main tactics.

    Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

    Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone's creed – not even your own.

    Plan B has been the choice of most religions and denominations, and the result, not surprisingly, is that most religiously affiliated people have no firm knowledge or even opinions about the finer points of any religion, including their own.

    Dennett also suggests further that the theologian business is sustained by the relatively few people willing to ask hard questions about religion and that, in fact, he suggests that many theologians are virtually indistinguishable from atheists. That is my experience too. Those who are willing to dig critically and self-critically starting seeing absurdities, oxymorons and self-contradictions everywhere. This causes them to retreat from literalism, though many of them hang on to their religions (I believe that they hang on for social and economic reasons). They profess, but they don't believe.

    Dennett is actively studying this phenomenon of non-believers who nontheless profess. In the course of his interviews with closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, he has repeatedly heard two jokes: "If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven't been paying attention," and "Seminary is where God goes to die."

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    James Zogby points out that Americans are woefully ignorant about the Middle East too, and that this ignorance is dangerous:

    "America has enormous interests in that region. In the past 30 years, we've spent more money, sold more weapons, sent more troops, fought more wars, lost more lives, had more economic and political interests at stake, and expended more diplomatic capital in the broader Middle East than anywhere else on the globe. And yet recent polling shows that two-thirds of all Americans can't point to Iraq on a map, just as many don't know the year that Israel declared its independence, the same number don't realize that Iran and Pakistan aren't Arab countries, and about one-half share prejudicial and stereotypical views of Arabs as angry, backward, violent fanatics."

  6. Tony Coyle says:

    Having some awareness of what my son is learning is school, and comparing that with his (English curriculum) schooling in Switzerland and with my own schooling in Scotland (albeit some time ago) I conclude that Americans are ignorant about many things simply because they are never taught even the basics about them.

    My son is taking an AP elective credit class in World History. It seems (to me) very shallow – he's learning a little about the fertile crescent, some of 'Persia' and Alexander, and the rise of the Ottoman empire. The middle ages, and the rise of the great European nation states, leading onto a little about European empires (Colonialism in Africa, Asia and the Americas).

    A descent enough trajectory, but not a lot, since this is only a one year class.

    In high school, I studied European history (including such highlights as the thirty years war, War of the Roses, the Napoleonic wars, the French Revolution, The industrial revolution in Britain and abroad, and the two World Wars), World history (ottoman empire, Japan and the shogunate, China through the revolution [Mao, gang of four, Chiang Kai Shek, sino-japanese wars, formosa/taiwan, etc], Russia [Tsars through Lenin/Trotsky to Stalin, five year plans, & c], Mid to far east [Ancient Persia, India, China, silk road, importance of the khyber pass for trade, rise of Venice, Christianity from Rome to Constantinople to Avignon to Rome, the reformation, the Rise of Islam, Competing religions, the enlightenment and the rise of a-religious thought], Americas and the rise of the 'modern world' [Spanish/French/British territories, Aztec/Incan/Mayan empires, Caribbean independence [Haiti, Barbados, &c], the sale of Alaska, Louisiana purchase, Strategic importance of American 'dependencies' [Guam, Phillipines, Hawaii], Territories to states and the constitution, isolationism, prohibition, suffragetes, MLK and civil rights, American 'exceptionalism', American wars [mexican, spanish-american, civil war, independence), Cold War [and associated… Marshall plan, berlin wall, etc]

    We didn't study much of this in any depth, but the fact that I can still simply rattle off much of the syllabus suggests that we at least covered these topics at multiple times across the syllabus (connectivity was in vogue at the time of my schooling!)

    I did not take 'history' as a certificate class. This was part of the standard general curriculum.

    I think that Americans are very poorly served by their educational system (public and private). You seem to specialize too much at a very early age! And, as Heinlein said – specialization is for insects, not people.

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