Wednesday, October 13, 2010
It seems that most everyone is aflutter with the news that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religionists themselves, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
Let’s put that another way: We now have evidence that disbelievers and unknowers have more information about other religions than do the followers of those religions. That’s the news coming out of Washington D.C. where the Pew Research Center has just released its findings from its study of religious knowledge in the U.S.
For anyone who may be curious, the results suggest that the level of religious knowledge among adherents and non-adherents alike is not all that great. Sure, atheists/agnostics answer more survey questions correctly, but 20.9 correct out of 32 questions is still a ‘D’ on the grade sheet. And yes, on a scale where 60% is passing, only atheists/agnostics, Jews, and Mormons pass, while all types of Christians fail.
Surveys have been trumpeting for years that Americans are the most religious people on the face of the earth – an observation made on the fact that, according to polls by USA Today/Gallup poll and Pew, for example, 92% of respondents say they believe in God. But as we all know, saying “yes” to a survey researcher’s question about belief in God doesn’t really tell us much. For instance, it doesn’t tell us anything about the God who is the object of belief, and there are a lot of options out there.
On the other hand, these surveys also indicate that 5% of the respondents say they do not believe in God or a higher power or a universal spirit. That’s a very small number of disbelievers. It gets even smaller when we consider that Pew also reports in another survey that this 5% can be broken down further: Some of this 5% self-identify as atheist (24%), some as agnostic (15%), and some as “nothing in particular” (35%). The remaining nonbelievers (24%) self-identify as followers of one of the Christian traditions, the Jewish traditions, Buddhism, or some other religion. Who knows but that the person sitting next to you in worship is an atheist!
What makes these religious knowledge statistics interesting is that other indicators of religiosity in this country are not so strong on average. Other surveys show that such practices as Bible reading, praying, attending worship, and other forms of involvement in religious communities are declining. We all know about congregations bursting at the seams and congregations on life-support. Beliefs once cherished and held with great conviction now receive nodding assent by some and complete dismissal by others. The bonds of faith that gave identity and purpose to participants in religious traditions are not quite as strong as they once were.
Some Christian denominations and churches are growing faster than others in the U.S., and the numbers of followers of other religions are also on the rise. But according to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of atheists and agnostics is hardly static. In fact, not only is the number of people who self-identify as “atheist” or “none” or “no religion” actually rising, but this group is the fastest growing group around.
So are we now to believe that atheists and agnostics know more about America’s religious traditions than the traditionally religious? We are, if we let the Pew survey be our guide.
Pew researchers asked 3,412 respondents thirty-two multiple-choice questions on religious matters (see the questions here). Only eight persons got all the answers correct; six persons didn’t get any correct (on a multiple choice questionnaire, no less); everyone else helped make a nice bell curve. On average, respondents answered half or sixteen of the questions correctly. The average for self-identified atheists or agnostics was 20.9 questions answered correctly, for Jews it was 20.5, for Mormons it was 20.3 – these are the groups that “pass the course.” Only white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics scored at or above the average of 16 correct answers (17.4 and 16, respectively). The other categories of respondents were white mainline Protestant (15.8), nothing in particular (15.2), Black Protestant (13.3) and Hispanic Catholic (11.6) – each of these get to repeat the course.
This Pew survey would have us believe that those who self-identify as atheist/agnostic know more about what they disbelieve and doubt than people of faith know about what they believe concerning their religion.
But this conclusion may be premature because it begs the question of how it happens that the atheist/agnostic respondents know the answers to some of these thirty-two questions. Are they formerly religious believers/followers, raised religious but never a practitioner, never religious but absorbent of religious culture, students of religion in secondary or higher education, actively non-religious (i.e., advocates against religion), married to a religious spouse, intellectually curious about religion, or what? Analysis of the Pew survey and the significance of their findings require that we decouple the fact that some respondents self-identify as atheist/agnostic and the relative presence of their knowledge of certain religious “facts, events, leaders,” etc.
To some extent, the Pew researchers do this with their discussion of factors that contribute to religious knowledge, but it merits exploring more deeply. For example, the data so far released by Pew does not tell us what questions were answered correctly by those who have had higher education, or attended a private religious school, or were active in youth group. Likewise, the information Pew has released does not tell us how atheists/agnostics answered all the questions, or how mainline Protestants answered all the questions, or how the questions answered correctly by evangelical Protestants compare with the answers by Jews on those questions.
At the same time, analysis must probe and assess what is offered in the questions as a baseline for determining what constitutes a bona fide religionist in a tradition. It’s the difference between what adherents know, should know, and don’t need to know, and how this difference is determined and by whom.
There is a difference, for example, between a Catholic who does not know about the church’s teaching on transubstantiation of the Eucharistic elements, and a Protestant who does not know this Catholic doctrine. Is it reasonable to suppose that a mainline Protestant religionist knows little about Judaism if he or she does not know who Maimonides was? Does it say less about religious knowledge and more about historical knowledge—or lack thereof—if a respondent chooses Charles Finney instead of Jonathan Edwards as a preacher during the First Great Awakening? The issue here has two edges to it: content, sources and opportunities to acquire religious knowledge, and the significance and function of such knowledge in the religious tradition. Put another way, who gets to decide what information constitutes “knowledgeable” in religious knowledge, and what information is meaningless in accounting the level of religious knowledge?
Pew survey researchers, in consultation with Stephen Prothero, the Boston University professor whose scholarship on religious literacy inspired the Pew survey, formulated the thirty-two questions with an eye to establishing a baseline of religious knowledge in the U.S. Out of all the possible questions that could be asked about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, researchers settled on these thirty-two as representative of “religious knowledge” in this country. That, in itself, is quite a stretch.
But it was not the researchers’ intent, nor do they claim, to suggest that there is a correlation between which questions were answered correctly and the level of respondents’ fidelity, commitment, and practice of religious faith. Just as they cannot explain how and why the atheists/agnostics know what they know, so they cannot explain—or pass judgment on—what religionists know and what significance for their lives this knowledge yields. Basically, at this point, Pew’s analysis is not concerned with these issues.
So what are we left with out of this survey? In brief, we know, among other things, that 19% of Protestants “know” that only Protestantism teaches that salvation comes by faith alone, and those 19% would be wrong.
In brief, we know that less than half of Protestant respondents associate Job with suffering, but so do less than half of Jewish respondents, and given their histories, these two groups might think quite differently about Job and suffering.
In brief, we know that one out of five Black Protestants does not know what Buddhism teaches about suffering and nirvana, but since only .7% of the U.S. adult population is Buddhist, one must wonder where and how Black Protestants who make up 6.9% of the U.S. adult population would have opportunity and interest to learn about this.
In brief, … you get the picture.