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Maimonides who? Why Americans fail basic religion tests

Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe? Sure.

When it comes to believing without knowing, Americans are doing a pretty good job. A recent Pew Forum survey found that, on 32 questions testing basic knowledge of religious beliefs, Americans, on average, answered only 16 correctly. Only 16 percent knew that Protestants traditionally thought salvation came through faith alone. Only 41 percent of Christians could identify Job -- and only 61 percent knew who Abraham was, although 90 percent of Jews did. Only 54 percent of us knew that the Koran was the Muslim holy book. This makes me wonder what the other 46 percent thought that Florida pastor was burning.

"Burning Korans?" they asked, in horror. "But they're so expensive to install!"

And that's not all. "More than four in ten Catholics in the United States (45 percent) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ," notes the survey.

I can't tell who should feel more like idiots -- four in ten Catholics in the United States, or the people who died during the Middle Ages contesting this point.

"Come on, guys," I picture the medieval folks saying. "Really? You don't know? We were stoned to death over this!"

"I think the term is 'overdosed,'" we say, staring perplexedly at them.

People used to care deeply about this sort of thing. Of course, they didn't have the Internet then. All you had to do all day was sit around arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin (a rhetorical exaggeration, but barely) and worrying that the sun might not return. Sometimes you had to exorcise somebody, just to keep in shape.

"Hey," your friend Carl would say, "some of the other serfs and I are going to go experiment with Black Death. You want in?"

"Nah," you said. "I have to stay here and make my religious doctrine more complicated."

"Suit yourself," Carl retorts. "Don't come crying to me in 2,000 years when people can't remember if we signed up for transubstantiation or not."

Now it's easy to point the finger their way. It's not our fault for not knowing! It's their fault for complicating things! The farther back you go, the simpler it was to know what you believed. There was the Golden Rule -- simple, reciprocal, easy to remember. Or, if you prefer numbered lists, there's that one point in the Bible where God hands down ten fairly common-sense instructions. But now? We went from 10 Commandments to 95 Theses to whatever the Vatican just came out with declaring stem-cell research to be a deadly sin, or something. Who can keep track of all this? Now we're so addled that barely 50 percent of us know that the Golden Rule wasn't one of the 10 Commandments.

What do those people at Pew think this is, the Middle Ages? We aren't at leisure to just sit around all day copying religious texts with a quill pen and maintaining our tonsures. We just have to grab the fundamentals and go.

"Did Thomas Aquinas inspire the Protestant Reformation?" people ask us.

"Sure," we say. "Sounds about right."

We don't have time to know what we believe! "That's what belief means, right?" we say. "Not knowing."

Well, not exactly.

It's one thing to hold that certain ideas transcend the realm of fact to become articles of faith. It's another thing not to know the facts that lead up to that jumping-off point.

I'm not advocating a return to medieval faith -- hair shirts itch, and standing on a column in the middle of the desert all day is an activity I rank only slightly above reading online comments from people who describe me as "a disposable evolutionary byproduct of pond scum." But it's worth knowing what you believe. We live in an age when much of our information is stored off-site -- state capitals, flags of nations, all consigned to the dustbin of "collective memory." But faith isn't something you can just Google. "Do you place confidence in the writings of Martin Luther?" people ask. "Hang on," we respond, whipping out our iPhones. "Let me check my iBelieve app."

Especially at a time when faith is determining so many of our decisions, this sort of religious illiteracy is deeply troubling. It's clear from the heat of debates occurring today -- and visible on those three or six channels that have perfect reception, no matter where you are -- that Americans do care deeply about religion. People feel strongly about where their spouses pray, where their children pray, whether their politicians pray at all. Still, another term that describes faith is creed, a system of beliefs, from the Latin "credo" -- I believe. It's hard to belong to any creed if you have no idea what you believe in -- or how what you believe differs from what others do. Surely it matters, somehow! How else to account for the high failure rate of interfaith relationships, or all those folks who were willing to be burned at the stake?

For my part, I straggled through the sample test without much difficulty. But then again, I'm an Episcopalian. "You know how some people say they're spiritual but not religious? We're religious but not spiritual." We tend to nail these things. Some would argue that's the reason we lack a certain elemental charisma.

After all, atheists and agnostics scored most highly on the test. In the case of religion, more information doesn't tend to correlate to enhanced fervor. The findings of the study reflect an article in the Boston Globe earlier this year about priests who were closet atheists. In the article, someone observed that if you made it through Divinity School without having doubts about your faith, you weren't paying attention.

Maybe fewer Americans would be so gung ho about our faiths if we had a better idea of what we'd signed on for.

I don't know. But I believe that would be worth finding out.

By Alexandra Petri  | September 28, 2010; 3:04 PM ET
Categories:  Petri, That's awkward  | Tags:  religion  
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