Friday, October 1, 2010

Religiously Dumb and Dumber

A new survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life tells us what we already know – or rather what we don’t know. Americans are profoundly ignorant when it comes to religious knowledge.

The survey had 32 questions that covered the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. It covered things like whether the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist and whether Martin Luther was part of the Protestant Reformation. On average, Americans got only half of the questions correct. That is a failing grade, even in American public schools.

Of all religious groups, atheists and agnostics scored best. They knew the most about religion, even though they are not religious. (That is fodder for another blog post!) Jews and Mormons were the next most knowledgeable groups.  Mainline Protestants and Catholics were the least knowledgeable. Evangelicals were about average in their ignorance.

Stephen Prothero already told us about this phenomenon in his book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't.” Not only are Americans ignorant of religion, they are also very opinionated when it comes to the subject. Even though they know next to nothing about other religions, they are certain that their religion is right and others are wrong.

Some are certain that all religions are basically the same and equally valid – a view that reveals even greater ignorance of religions. I call it the Lazy Man’s Philosophy of Religion. Prothero addresses this pseudo-intellectualism in his new book, entitled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World - and Why Their Differences Matter.”

As a lifelong student of the world’s religions, I am aware of how diverse the spiritual traditions of the world are. Even those religions that worship one God do not worship the same God. Allah of Islam is not the Triune God of the Christians or the YHWH of Israel.

When President Obama made the statement (as he did recently on September 11) that all Americans worship the same God by different names, he was revealing his lack of knowledge of theology. His actual words were: “We are one nation under God. We may call that God different names, but we are one nation.”

His motives were commendable; he was trying to unite the nation and express tolerance of Islam. But he only succeeded in giving offense to all religions, including Islam and his own Christian faith. No Muslim would say that Allah is the same God as Jesus Christ or even the Father of Jesus Christ. They call that shirk – idolatry and blasphemy.

Knowledge of religion is now as indispensable as knowledge of language and culture in international affairs. It is essential to know religions in this complex world where wars are enmeshed in religious tensions. Governments are naive if they think they can ignore religion and still have a viable foreign policy.

The teaching about religion has been omitted from public education because of the fear of crossing the line into the teaching of religion. They are not the same. Teaching about religion is legal; the teaching of religion is illegal. The fear of the latter has hindered the former. When even our president makes public misstatements, it is time to address this serious problem of religious illiteracy in America.

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