The results of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey just published by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life hold up a sorry mirror before the public. With 32 basic questions in all—and no trick questions--the questions fell into several groups: Christianity and the Bible, world religions, religion and U.S. public life and general knowledge—like asking who the vice president is. The scores fit a perfect bell curve, with most respondents in the middle having answered the most questions correctly. Still, the average score was just 16—half of the questions asked. If the 3,000+ Americans who took this survey are representative of the rest of us, then half of Americans over age 18 know very little either about their own faith or about the faith of others living side by side in this nation.
To take a 15-question quiz and/or to see the questions asked, check out the executive summary on the PEW Website .
Most respondents knew that public school teachers cannot lead the class in prayer, that an atheist is one who does not believe in God, that Mother Teresa was Catholic, that Moses led the Exodus, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that the Constitution says government shall not establish nor interfere with religion, and that most people in Pakistan are Muslim. But only half knew that the Golden rule is not one of the Ten Commandments, that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month, that Joseph Smith was Mormon, that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday, and that the four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
If Christianity is the major religion in the United States and most respondents did reasonably well on the questions about Christianity and the Bible, then why should anyone care about the other questions? What’s your view: Is it important for Catholics to know accurately what Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus believe? In the crudest terms, should Catholics care about Jonathan Edwards or Maimonides or Ramadan?
Let’s discuss in general: Do such questions make any difference, and if so, why?
I think one ought to know, at the very least, the basics of one’s own religion and that it is important to learn the rudiments of other people’s religions as well. Why? For one thing, it is part of general knowledge, understanding who we are as a society that is becoming ever more pluralistic. For another thing, without accurately knowing what religions teach, it is impossible to communicate with adherents of other faiths--to separate out the mainstream believers from the extremists and fringe. I realize from having lived in various parts of the country that learning about other people’s religion is easier in some geographical regions where Jews or Hindus or Mormons live than it is in other, more homogeneous regions. Friendships, interactions in civic life, and other typical encounters make such learning natural in many big cities, for example. But less so in small towns or rural areas. Still, this is the “information age,” and one can easily learn whatever one wishes and finds important.
Is such religious knowledge important? Let me hear, briefly please, what you think. How have you personally learned about other religions? Which religions do you know least about? And what do you make of the results of the PEW survey?
More specifically, let's look at the one survey question on Catholic doctrine: Does the church teach that the body and blood at Communion “actually become” the body and blood of Christ or are these merely “a symbol”? More than half (55%) of Catholics correctly answered the question: “actually become.” But wait a minute: almost half (45%) got it wrong or did not know the answer. How could that be? And what can be done?