religious literacy

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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Huston Smith: Farewell to a religious voyager who personified modern, progressive faith

Huston Smith: Farewell to a religious voyager who personified modern, progressive faith

Huston Smith -- to my mind an unmatched connoisseur of spiritual experimentation who was also exceptionally grounded in an extraordinary range of religious protocols -- died just prior to the new year, Dec. 30 to be exact, at age 97.

News media coverage of his death, while adequate, underplayed at least one salient point.

Which is: If any one person can be said to represent wholesale societal change, then it may be said that Smith personified the radical reevaluation of contemporary religious beliefs and practices that has profoundly divided Western culture. From the mid-20th century until today, this reevaluation continues.

Evidence of it may be seen in the ongoing culture wars dividing the United States and in parts of Europe.

As I said, the major news media provided adequate coverage of his death, given his limited fame among the general public, and even if they lingered a bit too long on Smith's brief experimentation with (then still legal) psychedelic drugs in the 1960s.

The factual and many faceted details of Smith's academic and personal biography were capably reported, as was his strong support for religious freedoms and religious and cultural pluralism.

For those who missed his death, or are unfamiliar with his life and work, click here for the New York Times obituary. Or click here for the Los Angeles Times obit.

Several outlets noted Smith's death by reposting past interviews and stories. How much easier and cheaper is that in this age of instantaneous web news and shrinking editorial budgets?

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Parade of 2016 yearenders: Global stories that clicked at the Lapido Media website

Parade of 2016 yearenders: Global stories that clicked at the Lapido Media website

Clearly, anyone who wants to understand the modern world (hello administrators at the vast majority of modern seminaries) needs to take a class or two in media literacy.

At the same time, it has become increasingly obvious that most of the journalists who manage newsrooms (hello Dean Baquet of The New York Times) need to have some kind of systematic, professional training in religious literacy.

On the other side of the Atlantic, there is an organization called Lapido Media that is working hard to build bridges to major newsrooms in the United Kingdom and beyond. The Media Project -- the continuing education umbrella project that includes -- recently cooperated with Lapido Media in an effort to produce a newsroom-friendly book entitled "Religious Literacy: An Introduction." I wrote the final chapter in the book and GetReligion readers that get the book will see many links to themes at this website.

(I should also mention that the headline on the website feature about the book needs to be fixed, since this is not "the first" handbook of this kind, since the Religion News Association -- to give credit where credit is due --  has done similar booklets on this topic in the past, which evolved into the entire ReligionLink project.)

Now, the Lapido team has released an interesting set of feature stories from its website to mark the end of 2016. GetReligion readers with a special interest in global news should click here and check this out.

Some of the subjects include: 

BBC Head of Religion, Aaqil Ahmed chose a Lapido event to clarify the BBC's use of the term 'so-called Islamic State' in our unprecedented most-read article of the year.

Also, this:

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Want high-level religion journalism? Then back high-level religion literacy education -- period

Want high-level religion journalism? Then back high-level religion literacy education -- period

If you read GetReligion, chances are great you attach major importance to the need for religious literacy among those who practice journalism. And not just to excel as a designated religion writer.

Given the role religion plays today in global affairs, you probably also feel strongly that a basic competency about religion is necessary in the coverage of just about any journalistic subject -- domestic politics, business, entertainment, and sports, among them.

Additionally, if you've been a university-level religion journalism professor (or an adjunct professor, as in my case), I'll bet you also think that the level of religious literacy exhibited by your students was disappointing, which was my experience.

(If your experience was better, I'd be delighted to hear about it. Might even lift some of my cynicism and lower my blood pressure. Use the comment section below.)

Religious literacy is on my mind this week for a couple of reasons.

One, was the media's confusion in trying to label the faith of San Bernardino terror attack victim Nicholas Thalasinos. This episode made clear the gaps in journalists' understanding of religious terminology -- and probably the public's as well, though that's much harder to gauge because of the public's dependence on what the press tells them. (I'll get back to this below.)

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Your video think piece: 'Getting religion' is crucial when covering complex, even violent news stories

Your video think piece: 'Getting religion' is crucial when covering complex, even violent news stories

I am in the middle or writing a pair of "On Religion" columns about the recent "Getting Religion" conference in Westminster, England, led by the Open University and the Lapido Media network that promotes religious literacy in the press and in diplomatic circles. Click here to read the first of those Universal syndicate columns, if you wish:

However, the main thing that I wanted to share with GetReligion readers -- especially working journalists -- is this video that was shown as part of the conference. No, I wasn't there (my final semester here at the Washington Journalism Center was starting right about that time), but I certainly wish that I could have gone.

What was the general thrust of this event? Here are some crucial background quotes, the first drawn from published remarks (.pdf here) by Richard Porritt, a former top editor at The London Evening Standard and the British Press Association wire service.

Let this soak in, as a statement about UK media (and elsewhere):

A journalist who is not confident about the facts is dangerous. And with a specialism like religion mis-reporting can lead to widespread misunderstanding. For too long religious affairs -- as editors deem fit to call the specialism -- has been a job palmed off on reporters. It is a role that has traditionally been dodged by the cream of the newsroom for specialisms thought to be more glamorous or hard-hitting. But there is no more vital role in a modern society cluttered with half-truths and myth surrounding religion.

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