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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
 
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Comments

So the more you know about Gawd, the less likely you are to believe in her. Sounds about right...

Posted by: irae | September 28, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

I wonder how many devout Christians know the difference between a Monophysite and a Dyophysite.

One of the reasons atheists and agnostics know so much about religion is that they don't lose sight of the forest because of trees. Just like capitalists were the best critics of communism (another religion), non-believers are the best critics of religion.

I also wonder how many Catholics and Protestants have attended an Orthodox or Monophysite mass (e.g., Coptic) and heard Eastern chant. It's far more intense and moving than the syrupy sweet Gregorian chant of Latin Church. Most Americans have had no exposure to Eastern Christianity, and are all the poorer for it.

Posted by: Garak | September 28, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

quick reaction-the writer of this article is so enamored of herself that she spends more time making cutely derived snide comments about her subject matter that I just lost interest and respect...

Posted by: 27anon72 | September 28, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Well like they say whenever you find four Episcopalians you'll always find a fifth.

Posted by: dcmotor | September 28, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

@dcmotor: Should I bring my own glass?

Posted by: Garak | September 28, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

Very well written. Snide comments and all ;-)

Posted by: Vingold | September 28, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

My recollection is that Michael Lindsay's "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite" reported that the elite Evangelicals he interviewed tended to know very little about Christian religious beliefs, including distinctively Evangelical beliefs.

I assume their brains are full of football and politics.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | September 28, 2010 6:23 PM | Report abuse

Considering what Americans know about US history, I am impressed that they know so much about religion. The statistics regarding Christians knowledge of Abraham (61%) is greater than Americans knowledge of Washington, Franklin, or Jefferson. More than half of Americans cannot place Lincoln in the 19th century.

Watch Jay Leno on Jaywalking. (a segment of the Tonight Show) The statistics quoted here regarding religion make Americans look highly educated when compared to the morons that Leno regularly talks to about the very basics of US History. Some questions that befuddle his audience:

1. Who did the US fight in World War II?
2. In what country is the Panama Canal?
3. What country is north of the US?

Leno's listeners know none of this stuff. Maybe they were spending too much time studying the life of Abraham?

Oh, and for Leno's audience, the Golden Rule is:

He who has the gold, makes the rules.

Posted by: jeffy2345 | September 28, 2010 6:31 PM | Report abuse

Seems to me that if you're bound and determined to be washed in the Blood of The Lamb, it's best to know which stain remover to use.

Posted by: palmtree2001 | September 28, 2010 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Re religion in America, if you want to read a fascinating and scholarly history of evangelism in America, read The Family by Jeff Sharlet. But don't let the word "scholarly" throw you off. It is absolutely readable. In fact, I found it hard to put down.

But the real shocker in this book is the well-documented history of The Family. It is a highly secret group, started in the 1930s, in America. The people who are chosen to join are those who consider themselves elite, a sort of Masters of the Universe in evangelical America. They are, for the most part, physically attractive males, powerful either politically or of captains of industry. They look upon the blue collar evangelicals as a sort of necessary "white trash". Among their number are Republican office holders, Mark Sanford, of Appalachian Trail fame, John Ensign of the mistress payoff in Nevada, Sam Brownback, Zac Wamp, Mike DeMint, Bart Stupak, one of the few Democrats, Tom Coburn ( I said most were attractive) and many others. They have world-wide influence and keep a very low profile. If you think the Muslims want to create an Islamic world, you ain't heard nothin' yet. These guys are going for an evangelical world with guess who as the guiding force.

Posted by: m_richert | September 28, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

I think Americans would fail similar tests about history, literature, science, and any other random subject. Americans are generally ignorant, survey after survey confirms this. How do you think the tea party is thriving?

Posted by: dmblum | September 28, 2010 9:42 PM | Report abuse

A wee glimmer of hope to be gained from this article - - - - -

Perhaps "more than four out of ten Catholics" aren't stupid. The others, including the Vatican, and many Protestants, are still stuck with Dark Ages mentalities.

Posted by: lufrank1 | September 28, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

maimonides??? is it really such a condemnation of america that most people haven't heard of a 14th (??) century jewish scholar, however influential? who thought up this test?

Posted by: samd2 | September 28, 2010 10:11 PM | Report abuse

One of the more entertaining articles I've read in the past couple weeks. I have a crowed reading list, but I will add you to it. Thank you.

Posted by: clfoster53 | September 28, 2010 11:13 PM | Report abuse

maybe there is a conspiracy to keep people stupid about a lot things. we have a nation of ponzi schemers, who prey on stupid investors. we have a nation of high school drop outs, who cannot join the army. we have a nation of lobbyists, who prey on congressmen. we have a nation of "non-participants", who choose dancing with the stars over the Jim Lehrer News Hour. and of course, we have a nation of immigrants, who throw a fit over newer immigrants. as forest gump said, "stupid is, as stupid does."

Posted by: rmorris391 | September 28, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

maybe there is a conspiracy to keep people stupid about a lot things. we have a nation of ponzi schemers, who prey on stupid investors. we have a nation of high school drop outs, who cannot join the army. we have a nation of lobbyists, who prey on congressmen. we have a nation of "non-participants", who choose dancing with the stars over the Jim Lehrer News Hour. and of course, we have a nation of immigrants, who throw a fit over newer immigrants. as forest gump said, "stupid is, as stupid does."

Posted by: rmorris391 | September 28, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

So Americans are as ignorant about religion as they are about almost everything else. No surprise there.
As usual, those who know the least know it the loudest.
I should be amazed at the number of self-described Evangelical Christians who know almost nothing about Christianity, but I've known too many of them to be more than mildly amused by their hypocritical antics.

Posted by: meand2 | September 28, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

The more I learn of the tenets and myths of any religion, the more I question the faith of those with that religion. The more they express their faith in their religion, the less I respect their intelligence.

Posted by: NancyNaive | September 29, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

maimonides??? is it really such a condemnation of america that most people haven't heard of a 14th (??) century jewish scholar, however influential? who thought up this test?

Posted by: samd2

Well, I've heard of Maimonides before this article, but maybe that's because I'm Jewish and therefore part of the group of people who didn't fail this test. I think, however, we can all agree on knowing basic punctuation and grammar rules. Please, learn the most basic things before you ridicule someone for knowing something more obscure.

Posted by: ttwiggle | September 29, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

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