Throwback Thursday: Are Americans dummies about religion?

Religion continues to be a flashpoint of disagreement among Americans, who often seem to have very fixed, deeply entrenched opinions about what religion is and how religious people should behave. But how much do we really know about religion, especially religions other than our own? Not much, according to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center in 2010. I wrote a blog post about their findings in October of that year. Sadly, the findings still seem relevant today.


Are Americans dummies about religion?

You probably have seen or heard about the recent story regarding a poll done by the Pew Research Center to ascertain Americans' knowledge about the world's religions. (Nicholas Kristof had a column about the story in The Times a couple of days ago in which he included an abbreviated version of the poll.)

The results of the poll are a mixed bag and are complicated by several factors, but the bottom line is that Americans really don't know much about religion. I guess we can add that to science and math and history and the long list of other things that we don't know much about.

Some professed surprise that the group in the survey who knew most about religion were atheists and agnostics. I'm surprised that they were surprised. After all, atheists and agnostics are generally people who have given a good amount of thought and study to religion. Most do not come to their disbelief easily. Quite often they are people who grew up in religious households but who, upon adult reflection, found their family's belief systems unacceptable.

Religious people, on the other hand, at least in my experience, are often people who, almost by definition, take things on faith. They don't give a lot of thought to the history or philosophy of their religion. Indeed, often, I think, they prefer not to know. It makes things too complicated, so they just accept what their theology tells them as truth, without questioning it. And it would never occur to most of them to study another religion, to look at it with an open mind. (And, yes, I do know there are religious people with very curious minds who do study and think about other religions and still manage to hang onto their own faith.)

Given that, it should not surprise us that Americans, who overwhelmingly profess to be religious people, are rather ignorant about the religions of the world. It shouldn't surprise us, but it should, perhaps, sadden us and cause us some chagrin. Americans in general seem to have very definite and firm opinions about the religions of the world - especially Islam - and yet they know so little about them!

Full disclosure: Religions and myths, and especially comparative religions, have long been a keen interest of mine. The most fascinating time I ever spent with my television was in watching the mini-series on PBS of conversations between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers about The Power of Myth in 1988. I later obtained audio tapes of the conversations and have listened to them several times over the years. And so, I find stuff like this Pew quiz irresistible.

Religions and myths have had such power over human beings ever since we have been human beings and they continue to hold sway over us today. Why can't Israel live in peace with its Arab neighbors? Why are American military personnel fighting and dying in Afghanistan? Why is there periodic conflict between India and Pakistan? Why does China continue to try to exterminate the Buddhism of Tibet? Look around the world today, and wherever you see conflict, if you trace it to its source, you will find a religious or mythic belief - something that tells a people that they are special and that they were chosen by their god for some holy purpose.

Perhaps it would behoove us to learn more about these powerful forces and to try to understand what makes them so powerful. Of course, that would mean opening our minds to new and different ideas, which can be scary. But, be brave! You can begin by going to the Pew website and taking a brief 15 question quiz that will give you some idea of just how much you know about religion.

Are you a dummy? Actually, I'm willing to bet you are pretty smart.


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