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Whose Line is it Anyway?

Atheists appear to know more about Christianity and other faiths than Christians do.  At least that seems to be one of the headlines coming out of the “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” published this week from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.  The Protestants and Catholics surveyed correctly answered less than half of a relatively simple set of multiple choice questions dealing with the Bible, religious rites and observances, religious history, and the place of religion in public schools.  Atheists, on the other hand, scored significantly higher, answering on average 21 of 32 questions correctly.  (Jews do equally well.)  This, in a nation that often seems saturated with piety, where presidents are expected to describe or defend their faith before and after being elected, and where God’s name is invoked incessantly in the public square!

Ignorance, of course, has never been a stranger to the United States, a country that even boasts of a political party in its history called “The No Nothing Party.”  One of the more influential books I read in college was Richard Hofstader’s study of anti-intellectualism in American history.  And ignorance certainly is not unknown in the church where bumper sticker slogans often pass for theological thoughtfulness.  I’m not really surprised that only 10% of mainline Protestants could identify Jonathan Edwards, arguably the most influence theologian in America.  But it’s a little disheartening to know that less than half of those same respondents could name the four Gospels, scoring not much higher on this question than atheists.

The easy take away from this is that the United States is growing increasingly secular.  That is certainly true.  Disestablishment, the de-centering of the church from its place of cultural prestige and privilege has been the dominant cultural motif related to religion for several decades.  But what I take away from this dismal report is a sense that “it’s our own damned fault!”  For far too long the mainline churches, in spite of a dedicated cadre of Sunday School teachers and Christian educators, have relied far too heavily upon the culture itself, rather than their own attentiveness to teaching, to transmit the essential story lines of their tradition.  That was always a perilous strategy, for the culture had little interest in the subtleties or nuances of religious traditions, shaping them instead to support the biases and prejudices of the dominant groups.  In the 1930’s H. Richard Niebuhr wrote about the social sources of denominationalism, and as early as the 1950’s and 1960’s we were reading about the suburban captivity of the churches.

Now that the culture has other fish to fry, even the most basic information about Christianity is increasingly obscure, let alone information about the growing number of people committed to other faiths and traditions.  The failure of the churches, born of our misplaced reliance on others to do our teaching for us, is highlighted by the study’s finding that one of the most significant indicators for religious knowledge is not religious self-identification, but a college degree.  This may account for the relatively high scores of atheists who, on average, have achieved a higher level of education.  I am certainly not complaining about the value of a college degree.  But what does it say about our churches when going to college, rather than going to church, seems to improve religious knowledge scores?

When barely half of the Catholics surveyed were able to correctly identify Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, or when less than a third of Protestants can correctly associate their tradition with salvation through faith alone, it seems obvious that the great Reformation debates no longer hold much currency for people.  That may be troublesome, but it may not be cause for a society to worry about its future.  More worrisome, and perhaps more dangerous, is the fact that only half of the Protestants and Catholics surveyed could correctly identify Ramadan.  Given the recent venomous debates over Koran burning and the proposed Islamic Center in New York, we may rightly worry that ignorance is not bliss.

The percentage of people self-identifying with Christianity in the United States is still relatively high compared to other countries.  This may not always be reflected in the intensity of practice of piety, and now it seems clear that it does not translate to much sophisticated knowledge about religion either.  Rather than lament the secular society or grow bitter at our own disestablishment, often couched in complaints about Sunday morning competition from soccer leagues, churches would be better served by an intensified effort to teach the faith to their own members, and to acquainting them with the faith of others who are now their neighbors.  For seminaries the message is also clear.  It’s not enough to produce educated, learned clergy.  We need to be producing thoughtful congregational teachers as well.

John H. Thomas

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