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.
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.”
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Better Know a District – Georgia’s 8th – Lynn Westmoreland|
About the Author (Author Profile)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 and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
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