A Knowledge Barrier?

Posted 28 Sep 2010 in GCM, Illini Life, Jesus, Ministry, News, Spirituality

The Pew Forum on religion & public life posted the findings of a recent survey of religious knowledge. It has made quite the headlines today. You can read the executive summary and stats here.

Several headlines I’ve read point out that atheists and agnostics “know more about the Bible than Christians.” Which isn’t quite accurate reporting. The study showed that Mormons and Evangelicals know the most about Christianity, but overall atheists and agnostics know more about world religions than any other group surveyed.

The more I read through the study the less surprised I was. Evangelicals tended to know most about Christianity but little about other religions. Those with more education tended to score higher on the survey. Those that answered more of the general knowledge questions correctly tended to answer more of the religious questions correctly – showing a correlation of more education or knowledge emphasis in general.

All this has me thinking about if we have any responsibility as Christians to know more about other religions and informing or encouraging our students to know more. Or does knowing the truth leave us content?

Things I’m thinking about… I welcome your thoughts


  1. Ben

    …and the site is down as soon as I go to comment on it.

    Take the quiz for yourself here: http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0928/Are-you-smarter-than-an-atheist-A-religious-quiz/

    But it’s interesting how the headline changes based on which graph you look at. White evangelicals come out second in their knowledge of Christianity (after Mormons and ahead of atheists/agnostics), but that’s the only way to slice the pie that shows a Christian group beating out the atheist group. In fact, that one group is all that pulled Christians as a whole above the average score. What does that say? I’m not sure.

    I think it’s more interesting to look at the individual questions (which I can currently only do from other news sources posting the results). Jonathan Edwards? Ok, that probably has more to do with your honors English class than anything else. But what about the laws concerning a contemporary hot-button issue? 89% know that a public school teacher can’t lead a class in prayer, but 66% think they can’t read from the Bible as literature and 64% think you can’t teach comparative religion. I have to believe that has unnecessarily fueled some fires in the last 10 years or so.

    57% of Protestants can name the four gospels, 55% of Catholics know their faith’s beliefs on transubstantiation… isn’t that a little odd? (To be fair atheists/agnostics didn’t have a chance to look stupid because there weren’t any questions about atheism/agnostics other than the definitions of those words).

    To give a little context, when 18% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth, what kind of numbers are we really expecting here?

    I’m rambling a bit now, but in short, I think these are the most interesting points:

    -Some groups (in general) place more emphasis on historical and doctrinal knowledge than others.

    -Atheists and agnostics tend to be well-informed about religious beliefs and history.

    -There is a great misunderstanding about the legal relationship between church and state (which makes me wonder where all this misinformation comes from).

    -Christians, even the more knowledgeable white evangelicals, have a significantly lower understanding of other religions.

    That last point, I suspect, is what deserves some conversational attention.

  2. nick

    As per usual Ben, a well written response. Statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to say – well not entirely, but the authors of the headlines I read drank that Kool-Aid.

    Surrounded by college graduates and students, the intelligence level of the general population is a factor I often overlook. I’m hoping your stat on 18% thinking the sun revolves around the earth is a joke. Hoping.

    “-Atheists and agnostics tend to be well-informed about religious beliefs and history.”

    This makes a lot of sense to me. Most atheists and agnostics I’ve come across have arrived at such a place only after an honest look at religion. Again maybe because I’m surrounded by academics.

    “-There is a great misunderstanding about the legal relationship between church and state (which makes me wonder where all this misinformation comes from).”

    This I found shocking to some degree. The Bible as literature was taught in my high school, we learned about Jesus and muhammad from a historical view point. Students were often vocal and some uncomfortable. I wonder if parents wrote letters to the administration or if they would these days.

    “-Christians, even the more knowledgeable white evangelicals, have a significantly lower understanding of other religions.”

    I think you know this is the one near to my heart and one I’m engaging in conversation with the Illini Life staff team currently. I don’t think I need to be an expert on other religions, but it would be fair to say most Christians know a straw man argument about other religions often heard preached on a Sunday morning and that is as far as their knowledge goes.

  3. Ben

    Thanks – and thanks for the thoughtful article. I guess this survey has ruffled some feathers? So it’s nice to see a measured take on it.

    Sadly, the stat I mentioned wasn’t a joke. Shocking, no? I think that touches one why some people react strongly to the results of the survey. “All these people that I encounter that seem so sure of themselves and talk a big game, they don’t even know what they’re preaching!” But of course, the Christians we think of are probably not the ones who can’t name the four gospels, they’re more likely to be the ones who also happen to think the earth is the center of the solar system.

    I’ll add to this that while I’ve met a lot of atheists and agnostics who know lots of facts about Christianity, there are also several who have deep misunderstandings about current Christian thought and practice (or at least overgeneralize the teachings of a few small camps).

    And no, I don’t expect everyone to be an expert on all religions (I’m not. I’d say I know very little about Islam and Judaism), but I think there’s a danger in being unfamiliar with them if you’re advocating one theology over another. I’m sure you’ve been involved with or at least witnessed a theological conversation where one person was dismissive of a position they weren’t familiar with (say Calvinism or sexuality or salvation).

    I know a mistake I often made when I was younger (and probably still make) was to think my position was superior in areas that actually were very similar to other positions (thinking that the Christian worldview was radically different from other people’s in ways that it actually wasn’t). I also made lots of misjudgments because I picked out one detail of someone else’s position but didn’t understand how they viewed the world. “Sara thinks it’s ok to drink and drinking is bad. Why would anyone need to drink unless they were self-destructive or trying to escape from something?” There was no concept of there being a good or healthy way to drink (or if there was, I dismissed it as being too risky, toeing the line).

    So I think my concern is that it’s way too easy to make lots of intellectual mistakes when you don’t know the lay of the land outside your own property. You don’t know much about your own stream if you only follow it up to your property line. It’s running through your neighbor’s land too.

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