off the cuff:

Surveying religious knowledge

posted by The Editors

Following the release last week of the results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, which was widely reported as having demonstrated Americans’ considerable lack thereof, we invited a dozen leading scholars to weigh in on the survey’s significance.

What, we asked, do the results of Pew’s quiz tell us about knowledge—and ignorance—of religion in the United States? And how important is the sort of religious knowledge that the survey tested to American public life?

Our respondents are:

Richard Amesbury, Associate Professor of Ethics, Claremont School of Theology; Associate Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate University

Jason Bivins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Associate Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University

John R. Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, University of New Hampshire

Penny Edgell, Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota

Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Chair of the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History, University of California, Berkeley

Paul Lichterman, Professor of Sociology and Religion, University of Southern California

Vincent Lloyd, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Georgia State University

Kathryn Lofton, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Yale University

Andrew Perrin, Associate Professor, Associate Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College


Richard Amesbury, Associate Professor of Ethics, Claremont School of Theology; Associate Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate University

Insofar as it aims to grade Americans on their “religious knowledge,” the new Pew survey contains a strongly normative subtext: that there are certain things that every American ought to know about religion. Since many Americans apparently do not know some of these things, it is concluded that they are ignorant not only of other people’s religions, but also of their own. Predictably, the survey’s release has been met with widespread hand-wringing about Americans’ “religious illiteracy”: “Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans,” was the headline in the New York Times.

In an earlier piece, I suggested an alternative interpretation: that the things social scientists take to be important about “religion”—in this case, a range of externally available facts about “the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions”—aren’t all that important to many Americans. This need not imply that Americans are insincere or incapable of successfully orienting themselves in a culturally diverse environment; rather, it suggests that the conceptual maps they use to do this don’t always conform to the expectations of demographers.

Instead of concluding that Americans lack “religious knowledge” because they don’t know what social scientists think they should, we might want to ask what, if anything, the study reveals about lived religion. If, for example, 45 percent of U.S. Catholics “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,” then perhaps it is a mistake simply to identify Catholicism with what Catholic bishops say it is. To conclude that Americans are “uninformed” about “their own traditions” betrays a subtle bias in favor of elites and begs the question of what constitutes one’s “own” religion: are we “illiterate,” or do we simply disagree about what belongs in the “canon”?

Still, whatever one’s standard, there is almost certainly room for improvement. After pronouncing Americans “deeply ignorant about religion,” the New York Times was obliged to issue the following correction: “An article on Tuesday about a poll in which Americans fared poorly in answering questions about religion misspelled the name of a beatified Roman Catholic nun and Nobel Peace Prize winner. She was Mother Teresa, not Theresa.”

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Jason Bivins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Associate Head of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, North Carolina State University

As interesting as I found the Pew results, I found even more suggestive the responses they generated. There were the tender-hearted ones, fearful that we will never overcome our rancor without better testing. There were the triumphalists, mocking the “Christianists” so manifestly out of touch with their tradition. Closer to home, we witness familiar academic rituals: calls for greater religious literacy or, more provocatively, to consider the differential modes by which “religion” is established.

I wonder, however, whether tests on just about any subject would produce similar results. Would our knowledge of, say, PEN/Faulkner award winners be statistically different? Surely, novels are less obviously tied to public life than religions, whose importance is obviously central to our moment. Yet it may be that what’s significant in these findings is not people’s fluency with data about “religion” but something more.

While I certainly wish that more Americans knew more things about religions, I have no confidence that this would improve public life, as implied in many responses. Instead of explaining away the ongoing outrage that constitutes public life by pointing to religious illiteracy alone, we might also consider what this survey cannot capture. What’s striking is not that citizens are uninterested in knowledge about religion but instead that we gather data incessantly, doing so not in the service of shared civic projects but as fuel for indignation, each decontextualized datum rendered an endorsement of our self-fashioning. “Knowledge” about religion here may not link up to anything outside itself but simply keep sturdy those obstacles between us as the particulars wash away. Even as I tell myself that tomorrow’s midterm will in some way avail my students in public life, I fear that their test scores may matter little in a time of digital isolation, conspiratorial rage, and an endless smile which tells us not to worry.

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John R. Bowen, Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts & Sciences, Washington University in St. Louis

Perhaps the most surprising result from the Pew survey is that most Catholics and Protestants appear not to understand the most basic elements of their own theology. 41% of Catholics incorrectly thought that their communion ritual did not transform the wafer and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Only 19% of Protestants knew that Protestants were the group that ‘traditionally teaches that salvation comes from faith alone.’ And yet these issues were precisely those over which schisms spread and blood was spilled. Why, then, have they sunk from salience in the minds of the faithful?

The answer may be that precisely because these issues divide people, ministers choose to play them down in their services. My Catholic students know that their church teaches transubstantiation (that the wafer and water are transformed), but they also report that it would be easy to miss this during the service. Anglicans (or Episcopalians) include those who believe in transubstantiation and those who do not, so the issue is deliberately fudged in those churches, and what Catholic priest would mind a few converts?

Protestant theologies have their own problems. Presbyterians may officially follow Calvin in his doctrine of strict predestination, but saying ‘you cannot do anything about your salvation’ hardly encourages people to come to church. Accordingly, it is little mentioned. And, to return to the survey question, emphasizing Sola Fide may be theologically correct for a Lutheran or a Methodist, but suggesting that good works won’t hurt on Judgment Day surely would seem like the pragmatically best message to put forward. (Some respondents also may have been puzzled by the absence of any mention of “grace.”)

In the end, why do we make much of church-goers’ failure to get the theology right? Is ‘having correct beliefs’ the main point of religion? There may be socially useful reasons to play that down in favor of encouraging shared values: compassion, service, and social justice.

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Michele Dillon, Professor of Sociology, Chair of the Sociology Department, University of New Hampshire

The Pew Forum’s recent survey documents major gaps in Americans’ knowledge of basic religious tenets. As the news accounts emphasize, Catholics and Protestants are far less knowledgeable than their minority Jewish and Mormon peers, and atheists know the most. As someone who defends the thesis that faith and reason are not only compatible but mutually influential in religious adherents’ lives, these data do not help my case. On the other hand, I can’t say I am too surprised by the findings. There are a couple of reasons why not. One, surveys of Americans’ civic knowledge also show remarkably high levels of ignorance and uncertainty about the basic functions of American government. Yet, this does not prevent Americans from having strong political opinions and vigorously participating in political debates. Two, religion as it is lived is really more about everyday habits and sensibility than religious knowledge. Thus, it is instructive that 45 percent of Pew interviewees think (incorrectly) that “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one of the Ten Commandments. In practice, however, this adage aptly summarizes all the commandments, and hence it makes practical sense that respondents would equate it with the Commandments.

Nevertheless, given the contemporary relevance of religious issues, the evidence even among college graduates of major gaps in religious knowledge does not bode well for the substance and tenor of public discourse. The fact that approximately two-thirds of Americans think that public schools are prohibited from teaching classes on comparative religion suggests that many schools probably don’t teach it, and that, if they were to, the move would not be without controversy. Yet, religious pluralism requires a basic knowledge of others’ traditions even if it does not dissolve disagreements among diverse adherents. By the same token, it is hard to have faith in the religious socialization of new cohorts of Christians if so many of their parents are ignorant of their respective denominations’ distinctive beliefs.

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Penny Edgell, Professor of Sociology, University of Minnesota

It’s time to play the devil’s advocate—a term originating in Catholic Church history for the canon lawyer appointed during the canonization process to try to poke holes in the candidate’s case. If that question had been on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, probably about as many people would have known that as knew that Maimonides was Jewish (8 percent).

I think there are wrong reasons and right reasons to be concerned about religious ignorance.

It is wrong to think that we must know the details regarding other people’s religion because religion motivates social action in a straightforward way. (For example, evangelical doctrine and popular culture abhors divorce, but evangelicals divorce at higher rates than do mainline Protestants.) And it is wrong to conclude that people do not care about their own religion because they can’t answer these kinds of questions. It’s crucial to remember that religion is more than doctrine. People care about it, and participate in its organized forms, for a variety of reasons, including the aesthetic and emotional appeal of ritual and the sense of community it provides.

The right reason to be concerned, it seems to me, has to do with a more general fragmentation of our common cultural references and our sense of history, fostered by a variety of factors including the proliferation, globalization, and niching of the media that deliver information. People do not know who Maimonides was, I think, for the same reason they do not know the origin of “devil’s advocate.” Our culture has become more pluralistic, and people draw upon its elements in the way of the bricoleur to construct a web of meanings that is flexible, contextually activated, and what we would call “post-modern” (though I suspect Latour was right and we were never as “modern” as some thought we were). Perhaps more fundamental, the rules that shape how the bricoleur selects the various elements have also changed. Religion is far less formative of our public discourse and culture in the deep, constitutive way that it was even as recently as the postwar period, due in large part to the rise of neo-liberalism. These changes are important, and not well understood, and more difficult to talk about than simply chiding “the American public” for its (completely unsurprising) ignorance.

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Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies, Chair of the Center for African American Studies, Princeton University

I suspect, and I am not sure I should say this, that if we ask Americans a range of questions about matters that extend beyond their immediate horizons, we would be somewhat amazed by the blind spots in our thinking. Ignorance about religion might very well extend to ignorance about geopolitical concerns or about other cultures generally. What is striking, and simultaneously disturbing, is the degree to which our comfort and certainty about ourselves as Americans and about the world we inhabit enable us to settle into a kind of willful ignorance. So I am not inclined to single out religion in this regard; something more fundamental has been revealed.

To take seriously the results of the Pew quiz leads us to question the substance of our national commitment to religious tolerance and pluralism.

If our knowledge of other religions (even our own) is shoddy, then what constitutes the substance of our toleration of others? Is it simply a procedural concern? And, more importantly, if we fail to know basic facts about others, do we make it easier to retreat into the comfort of insular spaces, deaf to the claims of others? Do we expect, at the end of the day, no matter our public announcements to the contrary, that all others should sound and believe as the majority of Americans do? Is that the price of entry into the public domain?

Ignorance heralds, more often than not, intolerance; it also can aid in the sanctification of bigotry. Hopefully, the Pew study can help us see this and help us change.

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David A. Hollinger, Preston Hotchkis Professor of American History, University of California, Berkeley

The Pew Study reveals how badly the United States needs a more candid, public discussion of religious ideas. Too often, religious utterances are given a “pass,” with the result that obscurantist ideas flourish all the more. This society would be much better off if religious believers whose ideas are the most consistent with modern standards of cognitive plausibility would join non-believers in actually criticizing the ideas that the New Atheists, for all of their throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater mistakes, are correct to lampoon. The real fault-line in American religious discourse is not between believers and non-believers. Rather, it is between the ignorant and the knowledgeable. Many educated non-believers share with believers an appreciation for religion’s role in providing structures of meaning and communities of belonging. There is a natural alliance across the believer-non-believer divide predicated on knowledge. The ignorance revealed by the Pew Study is partly the result of the failure of the relevant educated parties to engage the public in honest, sustained conversation about religious issues. This need not be done in an arrogant or patronizing manner. The key is direct, respectful, open engagement. Not everyone will listen, but lots will if given a chance. Truth is a powerful, shared ideal. “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” said a great preacher (John 8:32), even if his notion of what was true, specifically (Jesus was trying to get Jews to give up Judaism and to support his monomaniacal ministry), is unpersuasive. Americans knowledgeable about religion have too often withheld what they know for fear of causing offense. Speak up, for Christ’s sake (oops . . . sorry; I mean, for the sake of all of us).

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Paul Lichterman, Professor of Sociology and Religion, University of Southern California

A headline summary of Pew Forum’s U.S. Religious Knowledge survey might read “Grim prospects for evangelical Protestantism.” How else do we make sense of the fact that after decades of growing churches, multi-million dollar television ministries, bestselling book series—and VeggieTales to boot—only 28 percent of white evangelicals answered correctly that Protestantism teaches salvation through faith alone?  Combine that with the finding that nearly twice as many of that same population know that the Koran is Islam’s holy book, and we arrive all too easily at the crudest, culture-warring claims about rising Islam’s threat to Christian values. So what can we really take away from this survey? Scholars have long held that religion is America’s common coin, that it brings us together. But if it is that aspect of religion that would make the Pew findings concern us, the survey is not measuring it. The survey tapped a kind of cultural literacy that matters more to religious professionals than other people even in a still relatively religious country. If regard for religion somehow unites Americans, smooths differences, or wins elections, it’s not the religion of Sunday school primers or comparative beliefs courses in college. What if the survey had asked, “Is religion a matter of deeply personal faith?” or, “Is religion mostly a matter of being a good person and living a life worth modeling?” Probably much larger numbers, across religion and non-religion, would have answered “yes,” the correct answer in view of the American cultural mainstream. Of course this answer would show little more inter-religious knowledge or sensitivity than the results Pew obtained. But it would represent a more widespread kind of cultural literacy that, for better or worse, may unite Americans, smooth over our differences, and even win elections, in some places some of the time.

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Vincent Lloyd, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Georgia State University

Philosophers talk about two sorts of knowledge. On the one hand, knowledge-that is the belief a certain proposition is true: a triangle has three sides, Atlanta is in the South, or the world is round. On the other hand, knowledge-how is an ability: knowing how to swim, or how to bake a cake, or how to speak a foreign language.

The Pew Forum’s Religious Knowledge Survey examines one type of religious knowledge: knowledge-that. Respondents were asked whether certain propositions about world religions were true. But it is an open question whether this really is the sort of knowledge that we have in mind when we are talking about religious knowledge. At least sometimes, it seems like we mean knowledge-how.

Knowledge-how is occasionally conveyed in a way that looks like knowledge-that. We make an instruction manual intended to convey how to swim, or how to bake a cake, or how to speak a foreign language. But certainly we don’t confuse mastery of the instruction manual with knowing how to do the activity itself. This translation into knowledge-that is effected for certain pragmatic reasons, such as pedagogy or explanation. I wonder whether the high rates of religious knowledge found among atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons can be attributed to the frequency at which explanations must be given, explicitly when asked or implicitly to themselves—mutatis mutandis for the low rates among Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics.

While one response is to devise measures of religious knowledge-how (as S. Brent Plate suggests in the jargon of embodiment), I wonder whether religious knowledge might actually be a form of knowledge that resists reduction to either knowledge-how or knowledge-that. If these are secularist reductions, religious knowledge from the atheist’s perspective, what might the post-secular alternative look like?

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Kathryn Lofton, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and American Studies, Yale University

If you’re searching for ignorance, it is never hard to find. The question for us is the meaning of a given ignorance. If concertgoers today can’t identify Big Mama Thornton, does this make them ignorant of rock history? Or does it suggest that the interviewers have different definitions of rock, and different definitions of knowledge, than that of those fans? As a scholar of religious studies, I know I should be happy about this recent set of revelations from Pew, since it offers attention-grabbing openers for grant applications and renewed stakes to departmental pleas for funding. But for me deploying such statistically formatted failures of religious literacy seems a rather bad premise for arguments on behalf of our work. Is it the job of scholarship to teach Catholics what that wafer is? Is it the job of our courses to explain that Maimonides was Jewish, or that Indonesia is largely Muslim? It seems worrisome to imagine that our classes explain that the wafer means any one thing, or that ‘Jewish’ is a neat marker of any one person. Of course, Pew didn’t seek to supply legitimacy to my or our academic ventures, and here I may be anticipating argumentative applications that never will transpire. For now, I can only observe that a survey which pits religious groups against one another in a Quiz Bowl, and which imagines that praying Protestants ought to know the authority of Martin Luther, tell me very little about religious knowledge, and tell me even less about what the humanities do to serve such a surveyed public. It may be that we live in a budgetary time that begs for base descriptions of our basic (un)knowing. I would only warn that the minute we believe the answers we offer begin with multiple choice questions is the same minute when we cede our complexity to that formation of ignorance.

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Andrew Perrin, Associate Professor, Associate Chair of the Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Essentially, my answer to the “how important” question is “not very.” Relatively secular readers, particularly those hostile to religion, are likely to delight in the finding that, to oversimplify, many religious people don’t even know what it is they believe. But this begs the question of to what extent religious experience and even belief are essentially about a catechism, that is, a set of precepts agreed to in much the same way one might agree with precepts of science or sociological analysis. My view is that religious belonging is really not much at all about these. It is mostly about participation in a community of believers—even if the community isn’t quite sure what it believes in! The unwritten premise of the survey is that belief ought to be individual, considered, and fully-informed. But that premise fits neither religious experience nor human subjectivity over the long term. Thus to ask these questions in this way is to presume a particular kind of religious subject that is largely nonexistent, then to take pleasure in clucking over its nonexistence.

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James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College

I had two initial reactions to reports about this survey. The first was cynical: the inability of Americans to articulate the particularities of even their own religious faith sort of confirms the isomorphism of American religion—that the “religion” of this “deeply religious” country is, at the end of the day, just a functional deism necessary to sustain American civil religion.

My second reaction was more critical, and perhaps more charitable: I continue to be suspicious of such surveys and reports precisely because they reduce religion to “knowledge.” Or, more specifically, they reduce religion to the sort of quantifiable knowledge that can be measured by a survey instrument, crunched with statistical analysis, and then be presented in colorful pie charts that carry an air of scientificity.

But what if religion is not primarily about knowledge? What if the defining core of religion is more like a way of life, a nexus of action? What if, as per Charles Taylor, a religious orientation is more akin to a “social imaginary,” which functions as an “understanding” on a register that is somewhat inarticulable? Indeed, I think Taylor’s corpus offers multiple resources for criticizing what he would describe as the “intellectualism” of such approaches to religion—methodologies that treat human persons as “thinking things,” and thus reduce religious phenomena to a set of ideas, beliefs, and propositions. Taylor’s account of social imaginaries reminds us of a kind of understanding that is “carried” in practices, implicit in rituals and routines, and can never be adequately articulated or made explicit. If we begin to think about religion more like a social imaginary than a set of propositions and beliefs, then the methodologies of surveys of religious “knowledge” are going to look problematic.

In this vein, I’m reminded of an observation Wittgenstein makes in the Philosophical Investigations: One could be a master of a game without being able to articulate the rules. Surveys like this mistakenly assume that everyone who plays the game (of religion) can also articulate the rules. I think Charles Taylor gives us good reason to be suspicious of such assumptions.

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17 Responses to “Surveying religious knowledge”

  1. avatar Aristophilos says:

    All comments indicate that true Religion is not about knowing facts, but rather about living out what the facts imply. One can know all about Christ without being a Christlike person. Only practice makes perfect. Catechisms do have a value, but are not the essence of being religious.

    Life is about relationships. Imagination is more important than knowledge!

  2. avatar C. Biehl says:

    While the above scholarly responses make excellent points that mitigate some of the negative interpretations of the survey results, it is nonetheless true that knowledge is essential to religion. As far as Protestant Evangelicalism is concerned, what one knows, or the attributes of the object of one’s faith, cannot be abstracted from faith itself (while faith includes assent and not mere intellectual knowledge of a fact). Christ Himself made many claims, the rejection of which, Scripture says, has eternal consequences. Many believe Christ existed, or “believe in Christ,” but according to Scripture, what one believes about Christ is what is important. Was He just a man? Is He eternal God who died to pay the penalty for sin? The content of one’s belief, or the knowledge of and assent to certain truths, is of critical importance according to Scripture that reveals Christ and defines what it means to be a Christian. Scripture states that how one behaves is rooted in what one believes (while how one behaves is evidence of what one believes).

    The poll results call into question the claims of those polled. For instance, to be an evangelical, by definition, means that one knows and assents to certain truths, as is the case with many other religious affiliations. Many claim to be “Christian” for different reasons, but not always according to how Scripture defines a Christian. This is a problem with polls that purportedly reveal higher divorce rates among evangelicals than mainline denominations. Christ said “you will know them by their fruits,” or, how one behaves is evidence of what one truly believes. Imagine a hypothetical poll that found high levels of ongoing adulterous affairs among those claiming to be Christians, though Scripture says no adulterers will inherit the kingdom of heaven. The behavior betrays the claims. Thus, if to be a Christian means to know, assent, and act upon certain truths, the Pew findings may reveal far less than interpreters say they do, while revealing that true believers, by definition, are a much smaller subset of those claiming to be so.

  3. avatar mike says:

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Or, in this case, dreamt of in your polls.

    It seems these Pew pollsters are, well, quite ignorant themselves. One of the assertions by the Pew Institute was “Protestants, not Catholics, teach salvation comes through faith alone.” Wrong. Luther never said that, nor do Protestants of today maintain it. That is a heresy called fideism. Luther and the reformation did not wish to abandon reason and rationale, rather they thought faith/imagination ought to inform reason and rationale.

    And what are we to make of the quizzical question of Jesus’ birthplace asked by the pollsters? How about asking something which is closer to the core of Christ’s purpose and vocation? I agree with Lofton, this “quiz bowl” unearths very little about religious experience and thus ought not to unnerve us much. Though, our lack of knowledge regarding other religions is a problem; but we didn’t need a poll to tell us this.

    All in all, Pew researchers really dropped the ball on this one.

  4. We read with interest the thoughtful responses to the questions posed above about the significance of the findings from the Pew Forum’s recent U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.

    We would like to contribute to the conversation by providing some clarifications. First, contrary to Richard Amesbury’s post, the Pew Forum did not attempt to grade the public. We explicitly state in the preface to the report that “we have no objective way of determining how much the public should know about religion,” and we therefore decided “that, no matter what the results, we would not give the public an ‘A’, and ‘F’ or any other grade.”

    In addition, a number of the commentaries suggest that knowledge about religion is not the same as the lived experience of religion. We quite agree. But a lot of data exist about what it means to be religious, with numerous surveys examining religious beliefs and practices, attitudes toward other religious groups, mixing and matching of religious traditions, and the link between religion and political and social attitudes—in the U.S. and around the world. There is much less information available on what Americans actually know about religion. Our survey was designed to address this gap in our understanding of religion. It is our first attempt to assess levels of religious knowledge in a comprehensive manner, and we hope it will be useful to scholars and others seeking to better understand religion in the U.S.

    -Alan Cooperman, Associate Director for Research, Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life

  5. Thanks, Alan, for weighing in on this discussion. To be clear, I did not mean to imply that Pew had issued actual letter grades, although I would note that others have been tempted to. Stephen Prothero, who served as a project adviser, suggested in USA Today that atheists and agnostics, who “rose to the top of the class on this survey,” still only made “a D in my book,” and that “the nation as a whole flunked.” Moreover, the inclusion of an online quiz—on which, let the record show, I received “a score of 100%”—does little to discourage this line of interpretation. In any event, since “knowledge” is an achievement term (and “religion” an ill-defined and contested subject matter), a normative subtext is hard to avoid, disclaimers notwithstanding.

  6. avatar Jon Butler says:

    I found myself astonished by the several responses that criticized the Pew survey for essentially “reduc[ing] religion to ‘knowledge,'” if I can take James A. K. Smith to summarize the point. Are we really to believe that everything now is “lived religion,” “everyday habits and sensibilities,” “participation in a community of believers—even if the community isn’t quite sure what it believes in,” or Charles Taylor’s “social imaginaries”? Durkheim lives! Put crudely, the divine is the group reified.

    Yet even in these formulations, one might think knowledge might be important, including knowledge of the “bible” each group claims. Why? One might be life-saving: that knowledge and then discussion of principle, broadly based, MIGHT help a group from simply folding in on itself, whether collectively, as with the groups led by Jim Jones, David Koresh, or the current Westboro Baptist Church, or with individuals, as with the tragically misled husbands and wives in Wisconsin, Oregon, and other places, who have murdered their own ill children in the conviction that only God should attempt to heal, their actions strongly supported by self-referencing “lived religion” or “social imaginary,” and a tragically misdirected understanding of the meaning of religious freedom in the United States.

    To speak only of nominal Catholics, Jews, and Protestants, I have always taken it, as a historian, that the Catholic emphasis on theological reasoning, the Jewish tradition of Torah, and the Protestant claims about sola scriptura all required “knowledge” beyond lay “social imaginaries.” And I’ve always taken this to mean instruction and, yes, some minimal intellectual work, however poorly executed.

    But now, evidence of remarkable widespread ignorance of “classical” religious teachings in the most religious Western nation is tossed aside by scholars as very nearly irrelevant. Maybe this is the real definition of modernity for religious groups. Worship yourselves, or at least your social imaginary. “Knowledge” is so yesterday.

    Calvin, Maimonides, and Aquinas, as well as Confucius and Ralph Waldo Trine, must be weeping–or laughing.

  7. avatar C. Biehl says:

    Mike, Fideism is “blind faith,” not the informed faith to which the Reformers referred which included intellectual knowledge and rational understanding, as well as heartfelt assent. Justification by faith “alone” was at the heart of the Reformation debate, Protestants affirming (including Luther) and Roman Catholics anathematizing (see the Council of Trent). Protestants today do affirm justification by grace through faith alone.

  8. avatar Martha Murphy says:

    Like several of the respondents, I was not at all surprised by the results of the Pew survey. Most churches, to my knowledge, are not venues for learning about other religions. Some don’t even teach about the history of their own religion.

    I grew up attending the Church of Christ (usually three times a week). Most scholars would classify that as a Protestant congregational church. Yet I remember a tract entitled “Neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jew.” The Church of Christ claims to be based only on the teachings of the New Testament, and we did learn a lot about the New Testament! But Martin Luther wasn’t considered relevant.

    From time to time I’ve attended some of those huge, rockin’ evangelical churches, which seem to subscribe to the KISS principle—Keep it simple! Not all the people who attend those services are evangelicals, by any means—it is the nondenominational, social and musical aspects that many people like. The sermon is short and usually substantially the same.

    I could identify Maimonides as a Jewish scholar (although I couldn’t place him correctly historically). I know about transubstantiation. What I know about other religions was gleaned from reading and from history courses, including a “History of Religion in the United States” course I took in college.

    Most public high schools would raise a lot of controversy, I think, if they offered comparative religion or history of religion courses. Some church leaders and some parents don’t want children to know about religions other than their own. They want their children to accept their church doctrine without thinking about it too much. School boards and school administrators don’t want to deal with accusations of teaching children about religions other than Christianity, which would surely crop up. They have enough troubles.

  9. avatar paradoctor says:

    It seems to me that the respondents in this article all argue that religion is less about truth than it is about loyalty. If communion, solidarity and the comforts of ritual can be found under the steeple, what matters it if the congregation knows nothing of the doctrine?

    So the above respondents argue—or so it seems to me—and historically, politically the point is valid. The Romans had a saying: to the philosophers, the gods are equally false; to the believers, the gods are equally true; and to the magistrates, the gods are equally useful. To speak of “lived experience,” or “knowledge-how,” or a “nexus of action,” is to speak neither as a philosopher nor as a believer, but as a magistrate.

    But I wonder. Football also provides its devotees with communion, solidarity and the comforts of ritual. It too is a way of life. Is football then the equal of religion? No; for unlike with religion, the fans of football know the game’s rules.

  10. avatar C. Wolfe says:

    I understand (or so I thought) the distinction made by some scholars between religion as a lived experience and religious knowledge as discrete bits of information. However, to address a point by Richard Amesbury, ignorance of the mystery of transubstantiation and the misspelling a religious leader’s name hardly fall within the same category of error. How can I partake of a sacrament if I don’t know its spiritual meaning? Or maybe I should say, its spiritual goal. It would certainly strain my credulity to think that a bit of wafer and a sip of wine actually and magically transform into the body and blood of Christ—but if I don’t at least try to contemplate this mystery, or if I regard the act as merely symbolic, how deep is my religious belief? I’m not a Catholic, and I’m not even a religious person, but thinking about transubstantiation seems to get at the heart of the difference between faith and mere custom. I suppose I’m asking whether religion has become a mere behavior in our secular world. Even in religions based on ritual observance rather than faith (such as the public religion of ancient Rome), mechanical performance is not the point, but rather what the ritual does. Although obedience seems to be fundamental to most religions, obedience is a means rather than a goal—as far as I can tell as a sympathetic non-believer.

  11. Ross Douthat, of The New York Times, responds to James K.A. Smith’s comments above:

    These are wise words, but their applicability varies, I think, depending on what kind of religious knowledge we’re talking about. Can one be a serious believer without understanding (or caring much about) some of the more abstruse debates in your faith’s theological tradition? Of course. Can one be a serious Christian without knowing that Jonathan Edwards was associated with the First Great Awakening, or a pious Jew who doesn’t know that Maimonides was Jewish? Most certainly — and many of the Pew Forum’s questions fall into exactly this category, testing a kind of historical literacy (or a multicultural literacy, in the case of questions about other faiths) that doesn’t necessarily relate to the way religion is lived and experienced.

    But can one be a serious Christian without being able to name the four Gospels, a feat that only 57 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics could manage? Well, yes, I think so — but there things get a bit more complicated, surely, and you could be forgiven for wondering to what extent a “social imaginary” can be sustained amid widespread ignorance of what seem like some pretty basic facts.

    You can read the rest of Douthat’s post here.

  12. In response to Jon Butler’s comment, permit me to here post my response to Ross Douthat’s criticism over at the NY Times blog—since I think Douthat and Butler share some similar concerns. (This reposts my reply to Douthat from Fors Clavigera.)

    While he’s sympathetic to my second thesis, Douthat—like Butler—raises a fair point by asking:

    “Can one be a serious practitioner of Catholic Christianity who doesn’t know (as 41 percent of Catholics in the Pew survey did not) that the Church teaches that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, rather than just symbolizing and memorializing Christ’s sacrifice? (Note I’m not even talking about whether you believe in transsubstantiation [sic.] here — just whether you know that it’s what the Church says is happening on the altar.) There I think the answer is probably no: At a certain very basic level, what you know about a religion and how you practice it go hand in hand, and you can’t really be “a master of the game” if you’re ignorant of its rules — in the same way, say, that you couldn’t be a great baseball player if you didn’t know that three strikes make an out.”

    Of course, I wasn’t saying that there’s no place for religious knowledge in faithful religious practice. But his case and the analogy got me thinking further:

    (1) In my book Desiring the Kingdom, at several points I discuss how children and mentally challenged adults participate in worship, sort of as “limit cases” to consider. I don’t pretend these are the norms. But in both cases, it seems to me one can have devout practice that isn’t necessarily attended by reflective knowledge. (Nor does this preclude emphasizing that such reflective knowledge would be a desirable good.) I think these sorts of questions remain germane particularly given my interest in (and concerns with) Christian Smith’s work on youth spirituality, which also tends to come down pretty hard (at least implicitly) on 19-year-olds who seem to be playing a game but unable to articulate the rules. I’m not in the least suggesting religious communities haven’t failed in catechesis, but I do think there are also modes of religious “understanding” which do not always translate into articulated answers of the sort measured by surveys. And since Douthat specifically raises the Roman Catholic example, it seems to me that Catholic spirituality has always made room for an affirmation of faith that is tactile, kinetic, and visual and thus not always articulated by the believer. That is, while many converts to Catholicism have “intellectual” concerns front and center, global Catholic spirituality is precisely a tradition that has always been hospitable and accessible to the uneducated, even the illiterate, who are no less faithful. Of course, this is also a mode of spirituality that is susceptible to superstition, but the two are certainly not identical. (I’m thinking of the peasant believers in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.) So I can imagine all kinds of Catholic faithful who are not able to articulate what Douthat is asking of them, but nonetheless have a kind of tacit appreciation and understanding of just what’s at stake in the Eucharist.

    (2) I wonder about the baseball analogy: yes, it seems right that I would have to have a kind of propositional knowledge about 3 strikes constituting an “out.” And so I think both Douthat and I agree that there are reasons to be disappointed about the outcome of the survey—which sort of shores up my cynical “civil religion” thesis, as Douthat notes. On the other hand, we should also recognize that knowing 3 strikes = an out is not the sort of knowledge that actually makes one a good baseball player. It is just the sort of “spectator knowledge” that armchair batters around the country will be muttering about in October. But of course that’s a long ways from having the sort of know-how which enables one to get a piece of a 98-mile-an-hour fastball. And it seems to me that religious “knowledge” is more on the order of that know-how than spectatorish acquaintance with the rules.

  13. avatar Jon Butler says:

    In 1994 Mark Noll published The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. His point was that there wasn’t much of one and serious evangelicals ought to get one, if that summary isn’t too flippant.

    The Pew survey suggests the scandal isn’t just with Protestant evangelicals but with Christians generally.

    What James K.A. Smith doesn’t explain is what on earth constitutes the religious layperson’s version of “the sort of know-how which enables [a baseball batter] to get a piece of a 98-mile-an-hour fastball.”

    The Pew survey suggests that basic “doctrine” or teachings can’t play a very strong role in shaping that religious layperson’s version.

    If not, what does?

    And when we can figure it out, what links it to a would-be religious identity—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, much less a specific expression of that identity, such as Catholic, Hasidic, Sunni, and so forth?

    What I think I’m asking is what is meant by a “tacit appreciation and understanding of just what’s at stake,” whether in the Eucharist, as Smith posits for Catholics, or speaking in tongues for Pentecostals, or in a “clear” for Scientologists?

    What I’m reading is that Noll needn’t have worried about a scandal of the evangelical mind. Assuming he meant some form of disciplined knowledge and rudimentary intellectual engagement, this not only doesn’t exist but may not be necessary.

    This is amazing, really, especially for historians who mostly assume (as I think they [we] do) some basic understanding by “believers” of a religion’s principal teachings, whether in the sixteenth century or the twenty-first.

    So we come back to what strikes me as the question the Pew survey probed, at least implicitly: what does it mean to be a “believer” (or “adherent,” “member,” adept”)?

    The survey suggests not much doctrine or principal teachings, and many respondents have said, yes, fine.

    Finally, I think the baseball analogy is being used in two different ways—for players and for spectators (a parallel would be symphony orchestra musicians and listeners). I would submit that virtually no major league players (or orchestral musicians [see some of the articles on the legendary Chicago Symphony first trumpet, Bud Herseth (from Bertha, MN)] operate on “tacit understandings,” though I grant that many spectators (and concert listeners) do. But with baseball spectators (or concert listeners), does it make all that much difference? The assumption on which we write about “religious” laypeople is that, for them, it does, because we infer that unlike baseball and symphonic music, religion furnishes something akin to Tillich’s “ground of being.” (And no, I don’t take seriously “baseball [or music] as a religion,” however much I like both.) This is why the Pew survey seems so problematic, certainly for historians and, presumably, as well for the professionals (clergy, religious leaders, devout laity—the baseball players and orchestral musicians of faith) who play the game of religion.

  14. avatar Kogo says:

    So about a dozen variations on “Well, religion can’t be reduced to mere knowledge.”

    Yeah, but no: I call a *huge* act of goal-post-movery on everyone’s part. The Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds spent *centuries* murdering and torturing themselves and each other over VERY precise definitions of faith and religion. The Thirty Years War, the Inquisition, the suppression of the Muta’zilites, the plot against Spinoza, the rift between the Puritans and the founders of Rhode Island, all of these were indeed *exactly* about people giving or failing to give assent to very precisely worded, highly intellectual definitions of religion.

    So no: You don’t get to just skitter away, pretending religion is and always has been about “lived experience.”

    Plus, I remember quite a few clergy and scholars complaining that we New Atheists “don’t know enough” about religion to criticize it. So pardon me if I’m a little cockeyed when I hear you all poo-pooing the plain evidence that we know quite a bit about it. More than most religious people, in fact.

  15. In response to this discussion, I would like to make three brief points:

    1. Answers to a questionnaire are always of dubious value. What if a knowledgeable set of interviewers could have engaged (a necessarily much smaller, but still representative) sample in a serous dialogue trying to find out what the interviewees really believed and knew, not just automatic responses to do you know this or that? I suspect a considerably richer picture of religious belief would appear.

    2. Would the answers be more accurate if asked at any other time and place? Even in tribal times, not everyone knew the myths and some badly garbled versions have been gathered. Especially since the axial age serious religion has been the affair of a small minority of the learned. That still seems to be the case. When intergroup controversy arises then more people know about the controversial issue. I suspect people who don’t know that the bread and wine are really the body and blood of Christ (45% of Catholics did not know that that is what their church believes), could tell you why they are against abortion.

    3. If knowledge even of rather central beliefs is not widespread among the laity, as it probably never was, what holds churches together? Here, I’m afraid, the sociologists are right. Taylor’s belief that we are in a post-Durkheimian world is simply wrong. But the belief of some non-sociologists that this means people worship their own group is not what Durkheim taught. It is through group membership that we learn that there are norms and truths that are higher than we are and that in respecting them we can live together, even if we leave it to the learned to interpret them. Not such a bad idea.

  16. avatar Samuel says:

    The following point, in reference to Smith’s original comments and Butler’s questions, is perhaps worth noting: while knowledge of certain facts, identifiable in propositional form, is a sufficient condition neither for playing baseball well nor being a “good” religious person, it is the case that in Christianity (and I am a Christian) and, so far as I understand them, Judaism and Islam, some such knowledge, just like in baseball, is a necessary condition for being a good practitioner. That such knowledge is not a sufficient condition for good practice is not the point; that some such knowledge is necessary is the point, and it is in light of the deficit of such elementary knowledge that some are justifiably concerned about the results of these data.

  17. avatar Julia Queller says:

    The results of the 2010 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey at first glance betray the notion that the United States is a deeply religious country. However, as most of these respondents illuminate, there is more to religion than mere knowledge of rituals, doctrines, and founders. In addition to casting doubt on the assertion that the U.S. is religious, it also questions the U.S.’ status as a secular nation. Americans’ religious illiteracy is problematic because it is already difficult for the United States to reconcile its dual identities: one as a nation that is rooted in religious principles and one as a beacon of tolerance and model of separation of church and state. When Americans’ ignorance about religions is exposed, it threatens the legitimacy of both of those claims. How can Americans live virtuously according to its nation’s founding religious principles if they are unaware of those principles’ origin and current properties? And on the other hand, how could Americans be tolerant of all religious traditions if they are not well-versed in each faith’s characteristics – in effect, if they do not know what they are being tolerant of?

    Many of the respondents argue that religion is less about knowledge and more about how one experiences one’s religion. Being religious necessitates identifying with a community, affirming central values, and enacting rituals rather than internalizing religious facts. This popular conception of religion reveals a shift in what we think is important that religion offers. In belittling the significance of religious knowledge but preserving religion, we necessarily value the experiential aspects of religion more. In accordance with this more personal idea of religion is the privatization of religion, which the U.S. enacts in part through its policy of separation of church and state. The privatization of religion reveals that Americans see their religion as a category, something that is appropriate in certain times and places, but not as a larger worldview that is inherent in all aspects of life. The results of the survey support this notion, as it would be foolish for Americans to color every part of their lives with something about which they know very little. Whereas one could construe the results of this survey as denoting Americans’ ignorance about religion, which would belie both of America’s identities as a religious nation and a secular nation, I see the results as a mere indication of Americans’ changing conception of religion from a public, information-based entity to a private, experiential, and personal phenomenon. When one construes religion as experiential, it affirms the validity of both of America’s identities; the U.S. can be deeply religious by virtue of its citizens privately engaging with their faith, and the U.S. can be religiously tolerant because its citizens do not need to know the minute details of each faith to determine if they tolerate that religion but rather can do so based on mere appreciation of the value of religious tolerance.

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