The release of the findings of the Pew Religious Survey on 28 September 2010 caused a flutter in the media as journalists scurried to play up the lack of religious knowledge among Americans.
The survey quizzed 3,412 adults by telephone. In addition to 32 questions on religion, another 9 questions on matters of general knowledge were asked for comparison:
In addition to questions about religious knowledge, the survey included nine general knowledge questions (on history, politics, science and literature) for comparison purposes. These show, for example, that about six-in-ten Americans can name the vice president of the United States (59%) and understand that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves (60%). More than seven-in-ten (72%) correctly associate Susan B. Anthony with the movement to give women the right to vote, while just 42% know that Herman Melville was the author of the novel Moby Dick.
Overall, people who score well on the general knowledge questions also tend to do well on the religion questions. Atheists/agnostics and Jews correctly answer an average of roughly seven of the nine general knowledge questions. Among the public overall, the average respondent correctly answers 5.2 of these general knowledge questions.
I don’t see anything particularly surprising in the fact that Jews and atheists did well on both types of questions. Teachers, both religious and secular, are respected in Jewish culture. Jewish parents place an extraordinary emphasis on education. As for the atheists, doubts about the existence of God frequently arise in the minds of religiously reared young people when they begin to read widely. Wide reading is not encouraged by religious fundamentalists.
I don’t know what the lowest level of education was among the 3,412 adults questioned. Some of the answers are grouped according to College Graduate, Some College, and High School or Less. Respondents who didn’t complete high school might be expected to lack some of the knowledge tested on the 41-question quiz. Anyone who has completed 10-12 years of public schooling, however, could be expected to get most of them right.
The abysmal showing on the Pew quiz is not a reflection on religionists so much as an indictment of the effectiveness of U.S. public education.
Anyone exposed to a minimalist survey of English literature is sure to come across such expressions as “the patience of Job” or “the sufferings of Job.” And how can American children escape their courses in American history without hearing about Joseph Smith, polygamy, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre? Or from world history classes without hearing about the Reformation and the church door at Wittenberg?
As for the questions dealing with such doctrinal matters as transubstantiation, or faith vs works, how can anyone be surprised that rank and file believers are fuzzy on doctrine? Throughout history, doctrinal matters have been the concern of religious leaders and intellectuals. For the majority of believers, religion is an emotional experience, not an intellectual exercise. The important thing for most religious practitioners is how religion makes them feel.
No, the saddest thing about the Pew results is not that Christians don’t know their own church doctrine, but that 32% of Americans quizzed didn’t know that Pakistan is a Muslim country.
On the other hand, 68% did know it. In school, 68 is a high D and passing. Maybe things aren’t so bad, after all.
You can find details of the survey on the Pew site.
For some background on the “Abrahamic” religions, see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam