Religious Knowledge? It's Embarrassing!

The results of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey just published by the PEW Forum on Religion and Public Life hold up a sorry mirror before the public. With 32 basic questions in all—and no trick questions--the questions fell into several groups: Christianity and the Bible, world religions, religion and U.S. public life and general knowledge—like asking who the vice president is. The scores fit a perfect bell curve, with most respondents in the middle having answered the most questions correctly. Still, the average score was just 16—half of the questions asked. If the 3,000+ Americans who took this survey are representative of the rest of us, then half of Americans over age 18 know very little either about their own faith or about the faith of others living side by side in this nation.

To take a 15-question quiz and/or to see the questions asked, check out the executive summary on the PEW Website


Most respondents knew that public school teachers cannot lead the class in prayer, that an atheist is one who does not believe in God, that Mother Teresa was Catholic, that Moses led the Exodus, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that the Constitution says government shall not establish nor interfere with religion, and that most people in Pakistan are Muslim. But only half knew that the Golden rule is not one of the Ten Commandments, that the Koran is the Islamic holy book, that Ramadan is the Islamic holy month, that Joseph Smith was Mormon, that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation, that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday, and that the four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

If Christianity is the major religion in the United States and most respondents did reasonably well on the questions about Christianity and the Bible, then why should anyone care about the other questions? What’s your view: Is it important for Catholics to know accurately what Protestants, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus believe? In the crudest terms, should Catholics care about Jonathan Edwards or Maimonides or Ramadan?

 Let’s discuss in general: Do such questions make any difference, and if so, why?

I think one ought to know, at the very least, the basics of one’s own religion and that it is important to learn the rudiments of other people’s religions as well. Why? For one thing, it is part of general knowledge, understanding who we are as a society that is becoming ever more pluralistic. For another thing, without accurately knowing what religions teach, it is impossible to communicate with adherents of other faiths--to separate out the mainstream believers from the extremists and fringe. I realize from having lived in various parts of the country that learning about other people’s religion is easier in some geographical regions where Jews or Hindus or Mormons live than it is in other, more homogeneous regions. Friendships, interactions in civic life, and other typical encounters make such learning natural in many big cities, for example. But less so in small towns or rural areas. Still, this is the “information age,” and one can easily learn whatever one wishes and finds important.

Is such religious knowledge important? Let me hear, briefly please, what you think. How have you personally learned about other religions? Which religions do you know least about? And what do you make of the results of the PEW survey?

More specifically, let's look at the one survey question on Catholic doctrine: Does the church teach that the body and blood at Communion “actually become” the body and blood of Christ or are these merely “a symbol”? More than half (55%) of Catholics correctly answered the question: “actually become.” But wait a minute: almost half (45%) got it wrong or did not know the answer. How could that be? And what can be done?



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Beth Cioffoletti
8 years 5 months ago
Is religious knowledge important?  Yes.  But ...

I went to a lot of Catholic school (16+ years) and had so much drilled into me at an early age that these questions were a piece of cake to me.  But most people today are not exposed to religion class 5 days a week, for years on end, so I'm not surprised that certain things were not general knowledge.  Like the writers of the 4 Gospels.  That the bread and wine ARE the body and blood of Christ was so integral to my Catholic education that I couldn't miss it.  But what about those who were not so educated?

Religion has become contentious of late (or maybe it's always been this way). 

I, personally, have learned about other religions from reading about them, and from being lucky enough to know as friends people from other faiths. 

The religions I know least about?  Probably Hinduism, or Vodou (and some African religions).  But I'm also not well versed in American Evangelical religions, despite my great respect for Jim Wallis (of Sojourners).

What do I think about the PEW survey results?  I'm not surprised.  Perhaps I am a cynic, but religion seems more of a ploy (for power, for certitude) today than an actual means by which one's life can break open and be transformed.  Churches are more like clubs than real communities wherein people nurture and care for one another.

Maybe if religions were not defined some much in terms of dogma (or what you believe) and more in terms of what you do and who you are, there wouldn't be so much misunderstanding.
8 years 5 months ago
Is religious knowledge important?

I think so.  Many people, even governments, base their actions on religious beliefs - it helps to understand where they're coming from if we can understand their belief system.

I've learned about other religions by reading about them, sometimes by knowing people who are believers, sometimes by trying them out.  I've learned more about Catholicism from reading and the internet than I did in RCIA class. 

I  know the most about the Anglican/Episcopal Church from reading and knowing some bloggers of that church.  I know a bit about Hinduism from reading and taking yoga classes.  I tried zen meditation and  have read a little about Buddhism.  I've read some stuff on Mormonism too, though mostly about the history of it rather than current practice.  I probably know the least about Islam.

In a way I'm not surprised that the Pew Forum's survey showed Catholics as the least knowledgeable.  A church that believes on the one hand that it's the only true church and on the other hand that individuals aren't really able to figure out what's right on their own doesn't especially inspire the quest for knowledge in its members  :)
John Raymer
8 years 5 months ago
All religions are for justice - but justice to a Christian means something very different than justice to a Hindu.

All religions are for peace - but the path to peace for a Christian is very different than the path to peace for a Muslim.

We all get fooled when we project a Christian understanding of peace and justice onto the what people of other faiths say. And then we feel betrayed because things did not work out like we had hoped.

As Christians, we know that peace and justice come when we love one another as Christ loved us. We know that we have to sacrifice ourselves for the common good - we ourselves have to become the least so the least may become the greatest.

To a Muslim, peace and justice come not from love but from a disciplined society. When a society is in trouble, the answer is more disciple - hence the rise of jihad and strict sharia law, but also the rise in alms for the poor. This is why the Taliban was quick to help flood victims, even while they were killing people. To a Christian, this would seem cynical. To a Muslim it is most reasonable.

To a Hindu, peace and justice come when people accept their station in life, no matter how terrible. There is no legitimate redemption except through the purification of ones dharma through reincarnation. Christian justice for the poor only upsets that person's path of purification. The slums of Calcutta are terrible disgrace to a Christian. To Brahman and Dalit, they are very reasonable.

So what do you hear when a Muslim says "Islam is a religion of peace?"
India has an unbelievable disparity between rich and poor, yet it is stable enough to be the world's largest democracy.
8 years 5 months ago
I was never taught the answer to most of these questions in Catholic schools.  I certainly learned about those questions that pertain to Catholics but those that pertain to other religions came from exposure to history courses, popular discussions of topics and the news, most of it after college.  I bet there would have been few that would have known what Ramadan was before 9/11. 

I couldn't find what the total 32 questions were, only the 15 question test that was offered and there was a discussion of some of the others so I saw what 26 of them were.  So I could imagine a good Catholic not doing well in this survey mainly because most of the questions were not part of a Catholic education or any normal college education.  If one is Hispanic and not of this culture and not had a College education, then I can see how they would know only a few of the answers.  As such a low score on this test is not an indictment of Hispanics or any other groups for that matter of anything that is important.

This is also not a test of religious knowledge so much as knowledge of history and world cultures.

Marie Rehbein
8 years 5 months ago
When I told my Catholic School educated children about a situation in which someone's actions came back to haunt him, my twelve year old responded, "I love karma", therefore, I think we need to consider Disney as another source of religious education. 


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