American playwright Wilson Mizner is attributed with saying, “I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.” Given America’s current lack of religious literacy—the knowledge of, and ability to understand, both your own religion and that of others—Mizner may be on to something.
Losing (knowledge of) my religion
While it usually is putting out surveys to measure people’s perspectives on issues, attitudes, and trends shaping the world, the Pew Research Center put out a special kind of survey in 2010 and 2019 – the Religious Knowledge Survey.
Less of a survey and more of a quiz, over 11,000 people were asked to answer questions about a range of religious traditions.
The 32 questions on the quiz covered topics like what the Four Noble Truths are, what is not in the Ten Commandments, which religious tradition yoga is most closely associated with, and what the U.S. Constitution has to say about religion.
Rather than being the Pew equivalent of a Buzzfeed quiz, the questions are highly relevant in a country that is experiencing a striking diversification in its religious makeup.
According to 2021 Gallup polling, the U.S. remains a decidedly religious country. Despite increasing non-affiliation, three in four Americans identify with a religious tradition. 69% identify as Christian and a further 7% identify with a non-Christian religion like Judaism (2%), Islam (1%), or Buddhism (1%). A further 21% have no religious preference, but may still be counted among the increasing ranks of the “spiritual but not religious.”
In short, with such stunning religious affiliation, diversity, and difference, what the U.S. public knows – or doesn’t know – about religion, matters.
Based on their results, the Pew Research Center found:
“...most Americans are familiar with some of the basics of Christianity and the Bible, and even a few facts about Islam. But far fewer U.S. adults are able to correctly answer factual questions about Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and most do not know what the U.S. Constitution says about religion as it relates to elected officials.”
Some religious communities performed better than others on the quiz. Out of 32 questions, people who identified as Jewish correctly answered 18.7 on average while self-described atheists and agnostics scored an average of 17.9 and 17.0 respectively. Protestants averaged a score of 14.3.
The ignorance impact
Rather than making atheists, Jews, or agnostics look like religious gurus and others look like uneducated bigots, the survey points to an altogether more depressing fact: the U.S. is fundamentally, and woefully, illiterate when it comes to matters of religion.
If the best average of any demographic is 19 out of 32 (59%), Americans fail in making the grade on religious literacy.
But, there is some room for hope. As the Pew Research Center explained, educational attainment was the single greatest determining factor in religious knowledge. Those with more education, specifically those who had taken a class on “world religions,” tended to perform better on the quiz.
The problem is, most people don’t get the chance to take an introduction to world religions.
Religious studies is not a widely taught subject in the U.S. In her book Faith Ed., Linda Wertheimer explores the challenges and controversies surrounding the teaching of religion in public schools, highlighting the difficulties that teachers face in addressing sensitive topics and navigating the constitutional separation of church and state.
Similarly, in Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor discusses her experience as a religion teacher, noting that religious studies is often marginalized or omitted from the curriculum. Taylor says this is a missed opportunity, as it can broaden students’ perspectives and promote understanding and respect for diverse beliefs.
Despite the potential benefits of religious studies, it remains a controversial subject in the U.S. educational system, with many schools opting to exclude it from their curricula.
This being the case, it is much more poignant to point the finger at the leaders of our educational system, churches, synagogues, and other centers of education for our lack of religious knowledge rather than shaking the finger at any particular religious adherents or non-adherents.
Although there are those who rightly point out that religion is more than head knowledge—that faith involves experiential knowledge as well—a basic education covering other religions (whether experiential or book-based) would go a long way in building bridges throughout the world.
In one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, it is concerning that we consistently flunk the most basic surveys of religious knowledge.
The U.S. is a secular society, wherein the government and other public institutions are meant to be neutral in matters of religion, not favoring or endorsing any particular faith or belief system. In such a society, religion is generally considered a private matter, not involved in governance or things like state education.
The idea is that not imposing one belief or practice on others allows for a diverse and inclusive society in which people of different beliefs and backgrounds can coexist peacefully and respect one another’s right to freedom of religion.
But, by not offering opportunities for religious education that do not promote one faith over another, we are denying students and society at large the chance to better know–and live with–their neighbor.
We not only need better religious education so we can have a more expansive and generous view of the world. But the more we know our neighbor and their religious tradition, the more likely we are to live together in peace.
Some research suggests a relationship between religious illiteracy and religious conflict. A lack of understanding or knowledge about the beliefs and practices of other religions can contribute to misunderstandings and conflicts between people of different faiths. Similarly, a lack of knowledge about the history and context of religious teachings and traditions may lead to misunderstandings and conflicts within a particular religion.
I know religious literacy does not necessarily guarantee peaceful relations between people of different faiths. There are many complex factors that can contribute to religious conflict. And religious illiteracy is just one potential factor among many others.
In the end, it’s up to individuals and communities to work towards understanding and respect for one another, regardless of their cultural and political beliefs, economic interests, historical conflicts, or religious tradition.
Even so, as an educator, I am personally concerned with the evident poverty of religious education that the average American receives. It’s not that I think any country gets it exactly right. While some countries offer non-confessional courses, they continue to favor particular traditions (e.g., Christianity) and most religious education around the globe is unashamedly confessional, depending on the religious preferences of those in power. A “cross-cutting commitment” to religious literacy that focuses on shared virtues and appreciation for diversity is something I think we need to work on worldwide.
If we do not start with an education on religion, it is to the nation’s, and the world’s, detriment.
What the U.S. needs is a movement of those with faith, and those without, to learn more about world religions both in theory and in practice. It is time that we the people of faith or doubt, get an education when it comes to religion.