Headline news: Americans’ cup of religious knowledge appears to be half empty

Are old-school newswriters just too pessimistic by nature?

The Religion Guy admits he sees a cup that’s half empty, rather than half full, in pondering a new survey of Americans’ factual knowledge about religions conducted by the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Here’s one of the 32 multiple choice questions Pew posed to 10,971 adults in February: “According to the Gospels, who delivered the Sermon on the Mount?” A paper-thin majority (51 percent) correctly chose Jesus — not John, Paul or Peter.

Folks, this is the most celebrated religious discourse in human history. A slightly more promising 56 percent knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, not Bethlehem, Jericho or Jerusalem.

Less surprising, yet no less troubling given America’s increasingly diverse culture, only 60 percent knew that Islam observes the month of Ramadan (not Buddhism, Hinduism or Judaism), while 42 percent were aware that Sikhs wear turbans and small daggers (not Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists). More surprising, only 24 percent could identify Jews’ Rosh Hashana (New Year).


A generation ago, The Guy’s typical upstate New York hometown had roughly equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, one synagogue and a couple Eastern Orthodox churches, with most residents identified with one faith or another. In that monocultural environment, most students, The Guy included, would have flunked on Buddhism or Hinduism. But it’s hard to imagine classmates wouldn’t know who led Israel’s biblical Exodus from Egypt (missed by 21 percent of Pew respondents) or what Easter celebrates (missed by 19 percent). Something happened.

Fact number one for the media to consider: American adults on average got less than half the answers right, 14.2 out of the 32, (Pew ran a similar survey in 2010, but the questions weren’t comparable so there’s no trend line.)

Religion News Service columnist Mark Silk took Pew’s online test of sample questions and candidly admitted he missed the one about Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. He then made the really important point here, reaffirming Stephen Prothero’s 2008 book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't.”

“Today, religious illiteracy is at least as pervasive as cultural illiteracy, and certainly more dangerous,” Prothero contended, because religion is at the same time “one of the greatest forces for good in world history” and “one of the greatest forces for evil.”

OK, reporters will agree it’s not a huge problem that only 34 percent knew Catholic teaching on what occurs with the bread and wine at Mass. Meanwhile, that only 50 percent of Catholics knew that is something bishops should fret about. But consider per Pew that only 27 percent of Americans knew their Constitution specifies that “no religious test” is required to hold public office.

Pew is throwing a spotlight on nothing less than a knowledge crisis for our pluralistic democracy that the news media should pursue with educators and cultural analysts. Regardless of any personal religious involvement, 21st Century students and adults need to know the basics of the world they’re part of.

Ask your sources: How about every public high school in America requires, or at minimum offers as an elective, a semester course on the Bible’s cultural relevance a la the Bible Literacy Project’s non-sectarian textbook and a similar semester surveying world religions?

Siderlights: Jews ranked best in over-all knowledge about religion, followed in order by atheists, agnostics, evangelical Protestants, “mainline” Protestants, Catholics, “Mormons” (there’s that familiar banned nickname again) and those with no religious affiliation. Members of historically black Protestant churches were in last place.

Christianity Today culled this headline from the data: “Americans Who Know Religion Best Hold Worse Views of Evangelicals.” That is, people who got 25 or more answers right had the most negative feelings toward evangelical Protestants among those nine religious categories.

Reporters: Is this the result of association with Republicans, and Trumpublicans, or is something less political going on?

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