Americans are ill-informed on religion


WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. has long been known as a generally religious society, but it is the least religious Americans who know the most about religious matters, according to a new study out today.

The study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the prolific D.C. think tank, highlights the confusing relationship that average Americans have with religion.   Past studies found that 60% of the U.S. population considers religion to be "very important" and that almost 40% of Americans attend a religious service at least once a week. Yet a Pew study last month showed that nearly 1 in 5 Americans believe that President Obama, a self-declared Christian, is Muslim. 

The latest survey of 3412 adults suggests there is a wide gap between Americans' religious perception of themselves and what they truly know. 

"The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own," the report asserted.

More than 4 of 10 Catholics did not understand that their church teaches that the bread and wine become, not merely symbolize, the body of Christ.  And just over half of Protestants knew that Martin Luther founded their branch of Christianity.  

Only 47% of the general population knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist and just over a quarter of Americans knew that Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim nation. 

More than 70% of those surveyed did know that the Bible says Jesus was born in Bethlehem. 

Of those surveyed who believe in God, Jews performed the best in all three phases of the quiz (Bible knowledge, world religions, and religion and public life).  Hispanic Catholics performed the worst in all three phases of the quiz. 

Unsurprisingly, the more committed a respondent is to his faith, the better that person's knowledge of his religious tradition, the survey found. 

[You can take Pew's Religious Knowledge quiz here.]

But the curve-busting students of religion are the atheists and agnostics. 

The big story here is clearly that those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity, Dr. Stephen Prothero, the bestselling author of God Is not One, wrote at CNN's Belief Blog. 

This makes sense to Alan Cooperman, director for research at the Pew Forum.  He told the Los Angeles Times that atheists tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and then left it after lots of thought.  Atheists actually do care about religion, Cooperman said.  

The single biggest predictor of religious literacy in the survey was a person's level of education, not necessarily the lack of religiosity.  Other studies, however, have shown that more education correlates closely with lower levels of religiosity. 

"College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less," the Pew study reported. "Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge."

But the report insists that, even when controlling for education, a person's rejection of religion positively affects religious knowledge.

Religious and non-religious leaders seized on the occasion to urge their followers to educate themselves and others about faith. 

Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, called on Hindus to establish outreach groups at every temple to educate their communities about the basic tenets of Hinduism, News Blaze reports.  Zed also challenged Hindu philanthropists to fund the publication of educational materials to fight misconceptions about the world's third-largest religion and its billion-plus adherents.  

Christian and conservative commentator Cal Thomas suggested that Americans' religious ignorance means the country is forgetting God and instead pursuing pleasure and material things. 

Prominent atheists cheered the findings, and alleged that religion itself is to blame for the religious illiteracy problem.

"Many religious people do not read their holy books for fear of finding things they don’t like, which will force them to consider whether those easy answers are valid, and whether death is in fact permanent," Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, wrote at FoxNews. "In other words, religious people already have doubts, and avoid reading their Bibles to avoid addressing those doubts."

Hemant Mehta, author of the Friendly Atheist blog, theorizes that because atheists are skeptical, they actually pay attention to the ridiculous statements, and lies, that religions concoct. And, Mehta added, atheists observe that similar delusions plague adherents of all religions. 

Joe Carter, the web editor at the venerable religious journal First Things, was very distressed by the study's findings, but he realized his readers are probably among the public's most informed.  

"It is therefore your duty as an educated citizen to help raise the level of religious literacy," Carter implored. "Tell read First Things online. Do it for their own good...Do it for the good of America."

Whether one is religious or one thinks religion itself is fraud, this study should at least be a reminder of the importance of religion, said Stephen Prothero.

"From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests," Prothero concluded.

"Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world."