In which I engage in a bit of self-congratulatory speculation about the meaning of a recent Pew Research Center survey.
There's been a bit of news coverage lately about the recently-released "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The oft-cited top-line finding seems to be that atheists and agnostics, as a group, outperformed even the highest-scoring religious groups (Jews and Mormons), averaging almost 21 questions correct out of 32, compared to about 16 correct among all who identified themselves as religious.
(It is worth noting that none of the groups scored a passing grade on the survey: the 20.9 score for atheists and agnostics still comes to 65%, which is an "F". Worse yet, on average, white Mainline Protestants (like me — a United Methodist, reared Roman Catholic) fared as badly as almost any group, averaging 15.8 questions correct. Perhaps the real headline for the study is that Americans know diddly-squat about religion. Or, perhaps, Pew researchers know diddly-squat about what to ask Americans about religion. But I digress….)
Some argue from these results that religious affiliation makes people stupid about religion. Countering that line of thought, however, is the finding that those who claim to believe "nothing in particular" scored among the lowest on the survey: just a hair more than 15 correct out of 32. So it may not be that it is religious affiliation that interferes with knowledge of religion.
Also, making assumptions about cause-and-effect from survey results is always risky business: it's fair to say that religious affiliation correlates to or co-occurs with poor performance on the survey, but there's no way to tell if religious affiliation gets in the way of religious knowledge or if lack of religious knowledge leads to religious beliefs.
Having perused the executive summary and bits of the full 78-page report, it seems to me that it's less about religious belief or affiliation than the effects of curiosity and certainty (and possibly the act of marketing).
Those who identify themselves as atheists and agnostics (as opposed to the "nothing in particular" group) seem to have a demonstrated curiosity and engagement with religious ideas, though it lead them to question or reject religion for themselves. As this correlates to a high knowledge of religious matters, it seems reasonable to conclude that, the act of examining religion (even if one ultimately questions or rejects it) exposes one to the kinds of facts called for in the quiz.
Simply avoiding the whole religion question (as I presume is the case with the "nothing in particular" group) seems to leave one bereft of religious knowledge.
Also, two groups that are common stereotypes of the strongly religious — Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics — fared quite poorly in the quiz. Could this be a result of religion "passed down from generation to generation", rather than actively selected, out of all others, by the believer? Could curiosity about religious matters, the afterlife and what Christians call salvation be part of the reason behind White Evangelical Protestant's relatively high scores, while inherited religion results in the same dearth of religious knowledge found in the nothing-in-particulars?
Oon page 42 of the report, we find this:
In general, people who say they do not believe that the Bible is the word of God score higher on the survey than do those who do view the Bible as the word of God. Respondents who say the Bible was written by man and is not the word of God get 18 questions right, on average. Those who say the Bible is the word of God but should not be taken literally get an average of 16.3 questions right. And those who say the Bible is the word of God and should be taken literally, word for word, get an average of 14.5 questions right.
From this, I sense that taking a questioning stance with respect to the Bible's origin and interpretation — struggling with it (in — to use a Bible story as an analogy — the manner of Jacob and the angel at Penuel), rather than adopting the attitude of certainty stereotyped by the saying, "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" — correlates to greater knowledge of religion. As a liberal, questioning, Christian (and a high-scorer1 on the quiz derived from the survey), I might conclude that struggling with matters of belief and faith exposed me to a wider range of religious knowledge than I might have gotten by "just believing". One might reasonably conclude that certainty about religious matters ("I believe it, that settles it") hinders acquisition of religious knowledge.
A Little Bit About Marketing
Before this turns into a completely self-righteous defense of my particular version of liberal Christianity (and to justify its posting on my employer's web site, as this part actually has something to do with work), I have left out an important finding, which is that the groups who demonstrated the most knowledge about Christianity were Mormons and White Evangelical Christians.
These two groups probably do more to "market" Christianity in the US than any others. In keeping with the title of a book about Christian Evangelism, "Know and Tell the Gospel", they are also among the most knowledgeable about what it is that they're spreading. If you want to know a subject, prepare yourself to sell it. If you want to succeed in selling something, know it well (which is basically the point of John Chapman's book just mentioned).
There's a reason that the technology world has taken up the term "evangelism" to describe knowing a product extremely well and helping others to adopt it: it works.
And Another Thing
Implicit in all of the coverage of the study, including this blog entry, is the assumption that having religious knowledge is either valuable or important. I see nothing in the Pew study that suggests so, although the daily reports of religious hatred and misunderstandings that drive wars around the world suggest that a little more knowledge of world religions might at least help us understand the problem better.
1 On the publicly-available short-form of the quiz, I scored 100%, but I'm kind of a religion geek. Seriously, who else would have bothered to blog about this?