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Life / Society

When it comes to religion, we’d better get an education.

When it comes to religion, we’d better get an education.

The famous 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 very well be correct.

Several years ago, the Pew Research Center put out its Religious Knowledge Survey. They found that America is one of the most religious countries in the developed world. However, the report also reveals those declaredly without religion in America scored highest on the religious knowledge quiz. Atheists and agnostics, not people of faith, recorded the best scores on a test that examined individual knowledge of various religions. Questions ranged from the Hindu pantheon to who sparked the Protestant Reformation.

It seems that white evangelical Protestants had some of the lowest knowledge concerning other religions, averaging only 16 correct answers out of 32 questions on the quiz. On the other hand, atheists and agnostics “excelled” with an average of almost 21, just beating out Mormons and Jews who averaged closer to 20.

Although most Christians missed questions about other religions, even questions from an individualʼs own religious tradition proved stumpers as Catholics failed to identify transubstantiation as their own belief and Protestants did not note that Martin Luther kickstarted their own church movement. That said, Mormons and Protestant evangelicals scored the highest on questions of a Biblical nature.

Rather than making atheists and agnostics look like religious gurus and white evangelical Protestants look like stereotypical uneducated bigots, the survey points out an altogether more depressing fact—America is fundamentally, and woefully, religiously illiterate.

If the best average of any demographic is a barely passing 21 out of 32 (65%), Americans fail in making the grade on religious literacy. In one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, it should not be acceptable that our religious knowledge is somewhere between failing and barely passing.

As the Pew Research Center explained, educational attainment was the single greatest determining factor in religious knowledge. 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.

Those with more education on religion, particularly those who took a course on the subject, did much better on the quiz than the average American. 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) goes a long way in building bridges.

As an educator, I am personally concerned with the evident poverty of religious education that the average American receives. Over the last seven years since the Religious Knowledge Quiz was released, things have not improved. They may have even become worse.

If we do not get an education on religion, it is to the nation’s, and the world’s, detriment. Teaching world religions over the last few years in a variety of settings, I frequently observe that those who take the time to learn about another religion come away a lot more compassionate and understanding and much less cold and condemning towards those of another faith.

What America 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 either faith or doubt, get an education when it comes to religion.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on education from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Religion nerd, rugby fan, runner, foodie, traveler, beer-ista. Ken gets to do a lot of these things as a religion scholar, pastor, and popular writer and speaker working out of universities, cafés, communities, and local pubs across the U.S.

1 Comment

  1. When reading about surveys, I find it important to look at the actual questions. What questions are asked, how they are phrased, and how the surveyors interpret the results all affect the general statements made by the those who prepared the survey regarding the results of their work.

    Thankfully, the website link to the Pew Research Center’s “Religious Knowledge Survey” provides the questions and the answers they considered correct. What follows are some of my thoughts regarding this survey.

    The survey was designed to judge respondents’ knowledge of various religions, not just their own. The survey was designed to test respondents’ knowledge of history related to followers of various religions as well as some of the teachings of these religions.

    One question failed to clarify the basis on which the question would be judged. The question asked was: When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? The choices were Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Two of the three answers might have been considered correct depending on one’s understanding of when a day begins. If, as traditional Jews understood it, the day begins at sunset, the correct answer should be Saturday. The surveyors, however, considered the more commonly accepted concept that a day starts in the middle of the night and graded Friday as the correct answer. This meant that tradition Jews would answer the question as to when their Sabbath began wrong.

    Studying various religions can be a daunting task. Should one understand a religion based on the officially accepted writings of that religion if there are any? Should one take into consideration documents written by various “authorities” associated with these basic religions regardless of the fact that a particular religion may be affected by schisms and various sects? Should one take into account other writings by those espousing to be of a particular religion? Should one take into consideration the statements made by or actions taken by diverse people claiming to be inspired by a certain religion?

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