Because I'm convinced from my own experience that Americans are appallingly ignorant about religion, even though we're one of the most religious countries in the world, I regularly recommend that people read Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to know -- And Doesn't.
In this book, Prothero also accuses Americans of being ignorant about religion, but, in fact, that's just a guess on his part, buttressed with his personal experience and anecdotal evidence. Until today there really has not been a decent survey of religious knowledge among Americans to confirm what Prothero suspected.
But today the Pew Center on Religon & Public Life is releasing its new "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey." To read a pdf of my embargoed-until-today copy, click on this link: Download Religious-Knowledge-Survey.
The Pew Center folks are careful not to call Americans what I already did -- appallingly ignorant -- because, they say, it's hard to know exactly what Americans should know about religion and because the lack of previous studies makes it hard to say whether we're more or less ignorant than we have been in the past.
Well, fine. But the truth is that this study shows that lots of Americans don't know squat about religion. I often feel ignorant about aspects of religion that I haven't yet learned much about even though I write professionally about the subject. But the questions in this survey really are so basic that I find it hard to imagine how any reasonably well educated adult could not know this stuff.
* 18 percent of the respondents in this survey didn't know that Mother Teresa was Catholic.
* 29 percent didn't know that the Bible says Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
* 32 percent didn't know that most people in Pakistan are Muslims.
It gets worse.
* 46 percent didn't know the Qur'an is Islam's holy book.
* 54 percent didn't know Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation.
* And 92 percent didn't know Maimonides was Jewish.
No wonder we have religious controversies in this country. We seem to have ignorant people arguing about things they don't know much about. If they ever swallowed knowledge about religious stuff it seems to have gone down the wrong way -- or something. How can we respect each other's freedom of religion if we don't know what we're talking about?Well, you can read the survey for yourself -- and weep. Then we need to figure out what to do to improve this dismal picture. And we can start with our own faith communities, if any, demanding they teach us our own faith better and introduce us to other religions so we're not wallowing around ignorantly.
* * *
IS THE TEA PARTY A CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT?
The Jewish newspaper The Forward has done this intriguing analysis of the Christian aspects found in the Tea Party movement -- and especially how Jews might want to be thinking about this. Every political movement, of course, contains within it some approach to religion, even if it is not overt or is even a stealth approach. So people of faith should be always figuring out how the parties and candidates they're considering supporting may either undermine or support their own religious views. But as we do this we must reaffirm that there is not, nor should there be, any religious test for public office in the U.S.