Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rich Man and Lazarus -- Updated

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in fine Italian suits and custom-made shirts, and fared sumptuously every day at the finest restaurants in the city and also at home for verily he employed a cordon bleu chef.

And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at the door of the rich man’s Fifth Avenue coop, full of sores, although not for long because the door man drove him off,

And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table, or with the garbage from the finest restaurants in the city, or even from the worst ones; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom; the rich man also died, and was buried.

And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, it doesn’t have to be Evian, even tap water will do, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou are tormented.

And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, very much like the door man of your Fifth Avenue coop; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Then he said, but Father Abraham, although I didn’t feed Lazarus the crumbs from my table, all my life I paid very high taxes, you wouldn’t believe how high my taxes were, which supported homeless shelters and soup kitchens and other good things for people like Lazarus. You ought to give me some credit for that.

But Abraham said, Son, you were required to pay your taxes. If you had not done so, the soldiers would have come and thrown you in prison. This shows no love, no charity, for Lazarus.

Then the rich man said, but Father Abraham, that’s not all I did. I voted, and I always voted for the Party of Compassion, and gave the candidates of that Party many silver talents of political contributions through several different PACs, and the candidates of the Party of Compassion promised to raise the taxes on all the rich men in the land, to pay for more homeless shelters and soup kitchens, and many other good things; so if you give me no credit for paying my own taxes, you should give me credit for making other rich men pay more taxes.

But Abraham said, Son, I have said that paying taxes that you are required to pay shows no love or charity for Lazarus. How then can you imagine that making other men pay taxes shows love or charity for Lazarus?

Then the rich man said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldnst send Lazarus to my father’s house;

For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, and tell them they can stop supporting the Party of Compassion, because it won’t keep them from coming into this place of torment; let them support the Party of Frugality, which will lower their taxes and they can eat and drink even more sumptuously before they die.

And Abraham saith unto him, Thou still getteth not the point.

By Eric Von Salzen

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.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


Ingrid Betancourt, a Columbian politician, was kidnapped by FARC guerillas and held captive for six years. She and other hostages were finally freed by Columbian army forces.

Ms. Betancourt has written a book about her experiences, Even Silence Has An End , which I haven’t read and won’t discuss. What I want to call to your attention is a statement from an interview in which Ms. Betancourt talks about her captivity. She said that one of the few books she had access to was the Bible, and she read it over and over again. She described a passage that stuck out:

“It says that when you cross the valley of tears, and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it’s not money, it’s not admiration or fame, it’s not power. His reward is rest. So that’s what I want for me now.”

I think that’s very powerful, particularly given the circumstances in which she read it. But I can’t figure out what Bible passage she’s referring to.

Can you? Please comment.