What should college grads, and high school grads, know about world religions?

What should college grads, and high school grads, know about world religions?


What should U.S. college graduates, and high school graduates, know about religion?


A Gallup poll for the Bible Literacy Project 15 years ago found only about a third of U.S. teen-agers knew about Islam’s holy month of Ramadan or that the Quran is the religion’s holy book. The youths generally did better on Christian questions, though only a third could identify the significance of the “road to Damascus” and a tenth couldn’t say what Easter is.

The Religion Guy guesses that, if anything, teens in 2019 would do worse, due to the increase of religiously unaffiliated “nones” in the younger generation. Meanwhile, religious illiteracy becomes a more important problem for cohesion and understanding among the American people as diversity reaches beyond the Protestant-Catholic-Jew triad of times past.

Concerned about this, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations (established by the late industrialist, a Congregational preacher’s kid) sought help from the American Academy of Religion, a professional association of some 8,000 college-level religion teachers. The result was a three-year study that concluded Oct. 3 with the release of “AAR Religious Literacy Guidelines: What U.S. College Graduates Need to Understand about Religion.” Click here for the .pdf document.

What we do not get in this AAR booklet is answers to the question The Guy poses above, what information people should know by the time they have earned a two-year or a four-year degree. That’s not surprising, given the complexity of the field of religion.

Instead, we’re informed on what grads need to “understand.” Two major points from the AAR team are that religion is central for every human culture that has ever existed, and that therefore people need to have a good grasp of reliable, non-sectarian information in this field. It distinguishes academic study of religion, which is “descriptive,” from the “prescriptive” education that people receive from their faith groups.

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

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.”

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Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime?

That's a key question after the slaying of a 17-year-old Muslim girl in the Washington, D.C., area.

Regardless of the motivation, of course, the death of Nabra Hassanen is an unspeakable tragedy. My daughter is 17, and I can't help but identify with what the local sheriff told the Washington Post:

“I can’t think of a worse instance to occur than the loss of a 17-year-old on Father’s Day, as the father of a 17-year-old myself,” Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said

From the beginning, the Post has offered strong, insightful coverage of the murder case — boosted in large part by the expertise of the newspaper's stellar religion reporters, including Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a former GetReligionista.

That coverage has included excellent, factual stories (examples here, here and here) updating readers on the police investigation as well as how the victim's family and friends are handling the loss:

The Virginia teens were up late observing Ramadan, so they did what young people often do in the wee hours of the weekend: They went out for a bite to eat at McDonald’s.
But as they walked and biked back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, along a major thoroughfare, a red car approached from behind about 3:40 a.m. Sunday and chaos erupted.
The driver, Darwin Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old construction worker from Sterling, got into an argument with a teen on a bike and then drove his car over a curb, scattering the group of as many as 15 teens, police said. He caught up with them a short time later in a parking lot and chased them with a baseball bat, striking 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen and then abducting her in his car, police said.
Martinez Torres assaulted Nabra a second time, in Loudoun County, before dumping her body in a pond next to his apartment complex, where it was discovered about 3 p.m. on Sunday, police said. The medical examiner ruled Monday that the girl died of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck.
The horrific slaying of the South Lakes High School student reverberated beyond Virginia on Monday, as social media lit up with anger and grief, politicians expressed condolences and groups of various faiths condemned the violence. Many feared it was another hate crime targeting Muslims, coming shortly before a man driving a truck in London plowed into a group of people who had just finished Ramadan prayers. It follows a national upswing in attacks targeting Muslims since the November election.
So far, Fairfax County police said they have no indication that Nabra was targeted because of her religion, saying her killing was probably a “road rage incident,” although they continue to investigate the motivation.

Beyond the straight-news stories, though, the Post has supplemented its coverage with pieces such as Bailey's overview of "What happens when tragedy strikes Muslims during Ramadan."

This is a case where, obviously, it helps to have a Godbeat pro — or in the case of the Post, more than one — on the team:

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Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

What can we say? How long must we sing this song?

Once again there has been another attack in Egypt that has left scores of Coptic Christians dead and wounded. Currently, the death toll is at 26 or 28, depending on the source of the information.

Once again there are the same basic themes to cover. The ancient Copts -- the vast majority are part of Coptic Orthodoxy -- make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt. They are the largest body of Christian believers left in the Middle East, part of a religious tradition that emerged in the time of the first disciples of Jesus.

Once again, Egyptian officials have renewed their vows to help protect the Copts. Once again, reporters tried to find a way to list all of the recent terrorist attacks on the Copts -- a list so long that it threatens to dominate basic news reports.

So what now? Why now? Here is the top of the Reuters report -- circulated by Religion News Service, as well -- which caught my attention because of its early focus on what may, tragically, be a crucial fact.

In this case, the "when" and the "why" factors in that old journalism formula -- "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" -- may be one in the same. Read carefully.

CAIRO (Reuters) -- Gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt on Friday, killing 28 people and wounding 25 others, and many children were among the victims, Health Ministry officials said.
Eyewitnesses said masked men opened fire after stopping the Christians, who were traveling in a bus and other vehicles. Local television channels showed a bus apparently raked by gunfire and smeared with blood. Clothes and shoes could be seen lying in and around the bus.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. It followed a series of church bombings claimed by Islamic State.

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Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

Mirror-image news, again: Concerning those Ramadan prayers inside Hagia Sophia

It's time, once again, to take a mirror-image look at a story (click here for some earlier examples) that is in the news right now.

Well, it's sort of in the news. That's the whole point of this post.

Let's imagine that during a symbolic moment on the calendar -- perhaps a papal visit to Turkey, or the days leading up to a historic Pan-Orthodox Council -- a Christian leader entered the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and took out a prayer book and began chanting the ancient prayers of Great Vespers in Greek or even Arabic.

Turkish officials would be infuriated. Muslim leaders would be outraged. After all, this would violate agreements surrounding the status of this massive building -- once the greatest cathedral in Christendom, then a mosque after the fall of Constantinople -- as neutral territory, as a secular museum and a UNESCO world heritage site.

This would, in short, be a major news story and a threat to shatter Muslim-majority Turkey's status -- in the eyes of Europe, especially -- as a secular state that is dedicated to some protection for religious minorities.

Would this draw mainstream media coverage?

Now the mirror-image story, care of The Turkish Sun:

An angry war of words has broken out between Turkey and Greece after Athens protested a decision to allow a daily Quranic reading in İstanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia during Ramadan. The museum was for almost 1,000 years the biggest Greek Orthodox Christian church in the world.
The sahur, or pre-dawn meal, is to be broadcast each morning from the Hagia Sophia by Turkish national broadcaster TRT Diyanet along with daily readings from the Quran during the Islamic holy month, which began on Monday (June 6).
In one of the toughest diplomatic rebukes from Athens to Ankara in recent years, the Greek foreign ministry called the decision to allow the religious readings at the world heritage site, which is officially designated as a museum, “regressive”, “verging on bigotry” and “not compatible with modern, democratic and secular societies”.

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Are Christians paying enough attention to religious-liberty issues for Muslims?

Are Christians paying enough attention to religious-liberty issues for Muslims?

At the end of the Obama era, conservative U.S. Christians are expressing more worries about their religious liberties than they have for a very long time.

Yet devout Muslims face their own challenges. So journalists might ask Christian strategists whether these rival religions might unite on future legal confrontations and, right now, whether they support Muslims on, say, NIMBY disputes against mosques, while also asking Muslim leaders about Christians’ concerns.

As Christianity Today magazine editorializes in the June issue, the U.S. “will be stronger if people of faith -- not just of Christian faith -- are free to teach and enact their beliefs in the public square without fear of discrimination or punishment by the government.” 

This story theme is brought to mind by two simultaneous news items.

On May 24 the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a federal bias complaint about Muslim workers at Wisconsin’s Ariens Company, which makes snow blowers and lawn mowers. Christian Science Monitor reportage said Ariens granted two daily breaks from the assembly line for required Muslim prayer times but some workers needed three. After negotiations fizzled, the company fired seven Muslims and 14 others quit.

On May 25, the education board for Switzerland’s Basel canton, with teacher’s union support, rejected appeals to exempt Muslim students from the expected daily shaking of teachers’ hands out of respect. The New York Times said the board acknowledged that strict Muslims believe that after puberty they shouldn’t touch someone of the opposite sex except for close relatives, but hand-shaking doesn’t “involve the central tenets of Islam.”

Both incidents show ignorance of, or lack of respect toward, Islam.

Since 1997, CAIR has published pamphlets by Mohamed Nimer of American University that inform schools, employers and medical facilities about the Muslim view of practical issues, for instance:

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For Ramadan, Miami Herald shuns complex coverage for pro-Muslim promotion

For Ramadan, Miami Herald shuns complex coverage for pro-Muslim promotion

As surely as Easter brings news stories questioning the Resurrection, the arrival of Ramadan can be expected to bring exactly the opposite -- news reports that are essentially pro-Muslim marketing. And a new four-story package in The Miami Herald returns to that stale script:

Muslims are nice people and good Americans. Muslims are just like the rest of us. Terrorists are not really Muslims. Muslims are persecuted.

Let me stress: Not that any of those points are invalid.

As a religion writer for a daily newspaper, I interviewed a lot of Muslims who were happy as Americans and horrified at what was being done in the name of their faith. But to take essentially the same angle featured in so many newspapers for so many years is, by definition not news -- it's more like PR or image management.

We should have gotten better after that the Herald spent several months with four families on this package, resulting in a total of 3,435 words and three videos (which, unfortunately, aren’t compatible with GetReligion's software platform).

What appears to be the mainbar bears all the above clichés, leading with the persecution:

Yasemin Saib was filling bags with rice for a Feed My Starving Children event when she rolled out a mat and began to pray. A man interrupted her, asking her what she was doing.
"I’m praying," Saib said.
"To Jesus?" he demanded.
A few weeks earlier, the Cooper City school of her 7-year-old son was vandalized, with the words "F--- Muslims" splayed across a wall in bright red letters. "We live in frightening times in the United States," Saib said. "I can say that as an American Muslim."
Schools defaced. Stares on airplanes. Shouts of "Go Home’’ -- this is life in 2016 for many American Muslims. An anti-Muslim mood fueled by 9/11 has reached a throbbing crescendo after Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called for a "total and complete shutdown" of U.S. borders to Muslims in the wake of December’s San Bernardino terrorist attack.

"Throbbing crescendo." How did that phrase get past the editor? That might work for the New York Post, but not for a once-world class daily.

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Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

It’s not the first article out there about Muslim immigrants to German converting to Christianity but it’s almost certainly the most recent. But the Daily Beast, in reporting on the trend, predictably managed to link this trend to the U.S. presidential elections.

Which was unfortunate, in that the story of thousands of Muslims jettisoning their faith to become Christian is a continuing saga and a decent story in its own right.

Lots of outlets, ranging from the Daily Mail and the Times of Israel to Catholic World Report and NPR (click here for previous GetReligion posts) have reported on Muslims converting by the thousands, especially those from countries like Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan where conversions from Islam into another religion means an automatic death sentence. This is the first time these folks have been able to choose their own religion or no religion.

We’re talking statistics like 600 Persian converts descending on one church in Hamburg. So, the Daily Beast has waded in with the inevitable political angle:

AMSTERDAM -- Hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans have been lining up at a local swimming pool in Hamburg, Germany, to be baptized as Christians. In the Netherlands and Denmark, as well, many are converting from Islam to Christianity, and the trend appears to be growing. Indeed, converts are filling up some European churches largely forsaken by their old Christian flocks.
All of which raises a question, not least, for the United States: If American presidential candidate Donald Trump gets elected and bars Muslims from entering the country, as he says he will, would the ban apply to Christians who used to be Muslims? How would one judge the quality of their faith?

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Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Earlier this week, Religion News Service ran an intriguing story by a Reuters reporter about Muslims who live in far northern latitudes and their struggles to keep the Ramadan fast when daylight stretches for nearly 24 hours. 

Personal note: For the past year, I’ve lived in Alaska, where daylight is as little as two hours in the winter and is now at 22 hours. From my perch in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:45 a.m. and rises at 2:58 a.m. It’s a tad hard to sleep when you get a blast of sunshine (even through closed blinds) at 3 a.m. Last week, I visited Prudhoe Bay, where at 70º latitude, the sun never sets from May 20 to July 22. It’s beyond weird to go to bed there in broad daylight.

So here you have a religion founded in latitudes close to the equator where huge swings in hours of daylight aren’t an issue. But what happens when that religion expands to the north and south? As the story says:

(RNS) When the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins later this week, some Muslims around the world will face bigger challenges than others. The Quran is clear that the fast should last from before dawn to after dusk but says nothing about how many hours that might be.
Since Islam has spread from its Arabian heartland to the far reaches of the Earth, Muslims who live farther north must fast several hours longer than those in Mecca. On the year’s longest day, June 21, some could end up fasting for as long as 20 hours.
Usama Hasan, a British Islamic scholar, thinks this makes Ramadan fasting unbearable for many Muslims living in Northern Europe and Canada, especially the old and children just beginning to observe the practice. It also prompts many Muslims to give up fasting altogether during the summer, he said, or sneak a secret snack to help them get through the long days.

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