“Dangers of Religious Ignorance” by Colleen Carroll Campbell

In 10 Colleen Carroll Campbell on 2011/05/09 at 9:50 PM

If you can name the four Gospels, the religion of the Dalai Lama or the day that the Jewish Sabbath begins, you know more about religion — or at least, you know more religious facts — than most Americans. Bonus points if you know that most Indonesians are Muslim or that Jonathan Edwards, not Billy Graham, preached during the First Great Awakening. And if you can identify Maimonides as Jewish, count yourself among the elites: Fewer than one in 10 Americans recently queried by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life could do the same.

Since its release last week, the Pew survey on American religious literacy has generated a flurry of commentary about our collective ignorance in matters of religion. Protestant and Catholic pastors in our overwhelmingly Christian nation found particular reason to lament the results of this multiple-choice test. More than half of Protestants cannot identify Martin Luther as the leader of the Reformation and 45 percent of Catholics do not know that their church teaches that Jesus Christ is truly present, not merely symbolized, in the Eucharist.

Jews outperformed Christians on the religious knowledge quiz, but fewer than half can identify medieval philosopher and physician Maimonides as Jewish or Job as the figure in the Hebrew Scriptures most closely associated with obedience to God amid suffering.

The 4 percent of respondents who self-identified as atheists and agnostics scored highest on the quiz, due largely to their knowledge of other world religions and of court rulings about religion’s role in American public life. Secular pundits have pounced on those scores as proof that the more you learn about religion, the less you believe.

But the minuscule slice of Americans that publicly identify as atheists is an anomaly when it comes to religious literacy. While educational attainment was the best predictor of religious knowledge, the Pew researchers found that Americans who regularly read Scripture, attend worship services, discuss religion with family and friends and consider religion “very important” in their lives possess more knowledge than less committed believers. In other words, those deeply immersed in their own traditions tend to be more versed in other traditions, as well.

Conversely, those who have not bothered to decide what they believe show less interest in the beliefs of others. Exhibit A: The sorry scores of the “nothing in particular” crowd, those 35 percent of Americans who display low religious commitment but do not overtly identify as unbelievers. Unlike the proselytizing atheists who vocally reject God and follow with fascination each new Supreme Court ruling on prayer in public schools, this larger group of “nones” apparently lacks the curiosity to learn about the beliefs they have rejected with a shrug.

The mixture of ignorance and apathy among these “nones” is worrisome, given the exponential growth in their ranks in recent decades. There is something unsettling about the fact that rising numbers of Americans not only have found no answers to life’s biggest questions but show little interest in seeking them.

Our post-modern society celebrates this casual, incurious stance as sophisticated and tolerant. Academic, media and political elites frequently reinforce that message by failing to treat religious information as “real” knowledge that an educated person should possess. But as the lackluster quiz scores of the “nones” suggest, intellectual laziness lurks beneath their urbane facade.

There’s a difference between memorizing religious trivia and possessing religious wisdom, of course. The Pew survey made no attempt to gauge the latter, and serious believers of every stripe generally agree that knowing God involves more than knowing doctrine.

Still, we invest time in learning things we consider important. One need not be a religious zealot to worry when Americans know more about last week’s “Dancing with the Stars” lineup than the origin of the Golden Rule or which religion reveres the Koran. And it does not take a prophet to see that widespread ignorance of our nation’s religious heritage and the beliefs that motivate millions around the globe jeopardize the future of all Americans, religious and secular alike.

Originally appeared in the ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH Thursday, October 7, 2010.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a St. Louis-based author, former presidential speechwriter and television and radio host of “Faith & Culture” on EWTN. Her website is www.colleen-campbell.com.


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