Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Ignorance In The Pew[s]

By Eric Von Salzen

Are religious people more ignorant and less educated than non-religious people? Non-religious people often think so, and may find aid and comfort for that opinion in a survey of “U.S. Religious Knowledge” recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Pew concludes that, although “America is one of the most religious of the world’s developed nations”,

[L]arge numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.

Indeed, Pew says:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans answered only half of the 32 “religious knowledge” questions correctly, but atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons got 20-21 right. Protestants got an average score of 16, and Roman Catholics just under 15.

The specific examples of religious ignorance that Pew highlights are:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

I was surprised by these results, because I haven’t found that the religious people I know are ignorant about religion. Besides, I'm a religious person, and I'm not dumb (at least I don't think so). Also, I hate to see more ammunition being provided to the anti-religious zealots.

So I wanted to take a look at the actual questions and answers that led Pew to these conclusions. It wasn’t easy to find them; they aren’t highlighted on the Pew website. But after combing through the text, I found them in Appendix B. On closer examination, they undermine Pew’s facile conclusions that I quoted above.

Let's start with the question about transubstantiation, which 45% of Catholics got wrong. The question reads: “Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion?” The two choices are: They “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ” or they “are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” The first is the “correct” answer to Pew, but it’s incomplete. The Roman Catholic Church, as I understand it, teaches that the bread and wine do become in truth the body and blood of Christ, but also that there is no change in the empirical appearances of the bread and wine; that is, the “substance” of the bread and wine are changed, but their “accidents” are not. Now, I would assume that most Catholics are well-enough indoctrinated to pick the first answer, whether they understand all the details or not – and 55% did get it right – but I can’t get all worked up that a minority picked the other answer. Transubstantiation is a complex theological issue that doesn’t lend itself to a multiple-choice test.

Then there’s Martin Luther, who, Pew says, most (53%) Protestants “cannot correctly identify . . . as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion [sic] a separate branch of Christianity”. The question Pew asked was, “What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation?”, and the choices were Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wesley. Again, this is a badly worded question. I suspect that a number of respondents who gave the “wrong” answer knew who Martin Luther was, but they didn’t know what the phrase “the Protestant Reformation” meant. Of course this phrase is part of the vocabulary of theologians, historians, and history junkies like me, but if you aren’t familiar with the term, its meaning isn’t self-evident. Just from the words, it could refer to a reform of Protestantism, not a revolt against the Roman Catholic Church (perhaps that’s what the 12% of respondents were thinking when they named John Wesley as “the inspiration of the Protestant Reformation”). The dead giveaway that this was a bad question is that Pew, in describing the results, and wanting to emphasize for readers the degree of ignorance the answers to this question represented, felt it necessary to explain what the Protestant Reformation was (“the Protestant Reformation . . . made their [Protestants’] religion [sic, again] a separate branch of Christianity”). If the respondents had been given the benefit of that hint, I think it likely that more than 47% would have gotten the answer right.

And then there’s Maimonides. The question was, “Maimonides was ___”, and the possible answers were, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, or Hindu. Only 8% of all respondents knew that he was Jewish, but 57% of Jewish respondents did. Again, it’s a bad question. A non-Jew is very unlikely to have heard of Maimonides, unless he/she has studied comparative religion (I don’t even think he’s mentioned in EFM). It seems to me peculiar to ask about Maimonides, but not an equivalent Christian figure, like Thomas Aquinas for example. Of course, the reason Pew picked Maimonides was undoubtedly because his name doesn’t sound Jewish. If the question had been, “What religion was Hillel ben Samuel?” you’d probably have 90% correct answers, even though hardly any respondent would know who he was.

Thus, the three questions that Pew chose to highlight do not, in my view, prove as much about Americans’ "ignorance" about religion as Pew seems to think they do. In fact, the survey as a whole shows that Americans know a lot about religions, their own and others’. Almost three-quarters of respondents knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (not Nazareth or Jerusalem, two of the other choices), and a similar number knew that Moses led the exodus from Egypt; more than half knew that the Golden Rule isn’t one of the Ten Commandments, and a like number knew that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son for God. Fully 82% knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic.

Other answers, though, do show surprising ignorance. I was shocked that fewer than half of respondents were able to name the four Gospels correctly. (A few years ago some might have mistakenly named the Gospel of Judas, which for a time received a disproportionate amount of attention in the media, but that’s old news now, I think.) In a survey in which more than three-quarters of respondents identify themselves as Christians, it’s hard to understand this result.

About 2/3 of respondents knew that Zeus was the king of the gods in Greek mythology, but only about a third knew that Vishnu and Shiva are Hindu deities (actually, the question refers to them as “central figures” in a religion). Given the relative number of adherents to these religious traditions, one might infer a shortcoming in our educational systems.

Certainly, those whose job it is to teach religion to children, youth, and adults should see the results of the Pew survey as a challenge, but there’s no reason to despair.


  1. Hi, Eric. I think the title of your post is instructive, as always, but I would go a step further. Unfortunately, I don't think that probing a person's objective knowledge about a set of circumstances or facts is any true indicator of someone's intelligence, though it may be evident of one's schooling.

    I think the deeper issue for me, however, is the fact that I think we're all ignorant when it comes to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, just because we can (or cannot, as it were) recite the fathers or the foundational tenents of the faith or the text does not necessarily make us intelligent in the "Christian" or "right" or "good" sense. Rather, what makes us such (or not) is how we reflect the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in our own lives and in our interaction with the other amongst us.

    Sadly, I fear that we fail that test even worse than we do the objective Pew examination if our culture and society is any indicator.

  2. Chad, thanks for the comments, which are insightful as usual. You are right of course that academic knowledge doesn't make us good Christians, nor does the lack of it prevent us from beeing good Christians.

    Nevertheless, I believe that Christianity is (or should be) the thinking person's religion, which is why I mentor EFM, and why I challenge efforts to portray Christians as boobs.

  3. EfM, Year Four, Chapter 28 "World Religions"

    "By the time of the Middle Ages. . . [Jewish] [s]cholars migrated as far as Alexandria, Egypt, and Cordova, Spain. . . . The four greatest scholars of the period were . . . . Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135-1204), who sought to reconcile Aristotle with the Bible; and [others]. . . . These scholars influenced Christian authors such as Thomas Aquinas and later influenced Protestant scholarship during the Reformation."

    Ha! Gotcha, Eric. The only correct Pew question is "why doesn't everyone sign up for EfM so we can avoid these contentious yet insignificant surveys?"