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Religious ignorance hurts

Posted: October 1, 2010 5:48 p.m.
Updated: October 4, 2010 5:00 a.m.

A new poll finds atheist and agnostics know more about religion than believers do. Maybe the pollsters weren’t asking the right questions.

The study by the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked 3,412 Americans 32 questions about the Bible and other world religions, historical figures and constitutional principles.

Americans are deeply religious, the study confirms, but we’re also deeply ignorant about religion. The survey found, for example, that at least two-thirds knew that public school teachers are not allowed to lead the class in prayer, but fewer than a third knew that teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature.

No wonder there’s so much ignorance about religion. It’s constitutionally permissible to teach about religion, as long as you don’t try to promote a particular religion. Unfortunately, a lot of teachers and principals have decided in today’s litigious society that it is not worth the hassle to do either one.

Who can blame them, considering lawsuits like the recent action taken by a group of suburban Boston middle school parents. They sued after some sixth-grade boys decided to take part in a prayer at a Boston mosque during a field trip in May. What gets me is that a lawyer for the parents charged that the trip would have been unconstitutional even if none of the kids had prayed.

That’s a loss for the kids. America’s diversity has a lot to teach us. My earliest knowledge of other people’s religions came from field trips to churches and synagogues under the auspices of our public schools. Today’s attitudes have swung too often, in my view, from neutrality toward religion to being anti-religious. Lost in that swing is a lot of valuable knowledge about this nation’s diverse people, cultures, histories and beliefs.

Ironically, the least ignorant respondents by a narrow margin in the Pew poll were atheists and agnostics. Grouped together, they answered an average of 20.9 of the 32 questions correctly, narrowly beating Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3), the two highest-scoring groups of believers.

Does increased knowledge ironically lead to a loss of religious faith? I am reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen: “Know Jesus, Know Peace.” A nonbeliever’s version might read, “Know Religion, NO Religion!”

“I gave a Bible to my daughter,” said Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists. “That’s how you make atheists.”

Yet, in my experience, atheists are vastly outnumbered among nonbelievers by agnostics, whose bumper stickers might read, “Honk If You’re Not Sure.”

Clustered in the middle were white Evangelical Protestants (17.6 correct answers out of 32), white Catholics (16), white mainline Protestants (15.8) and “Nothing in particular” (15.2).

But what really dropped my jaw with surprise were the two lowest-performing groups: Black Protestants (13.4 correct answers out of 32) and Hispanic Catholic (11.6).

What? Having grown up in the black church since before I could walk, I think maybe the pollsters were asking the wrong questions.

I would not be surprised, for example, if quite a few black folks thought “Martin Luther” was a reference to a great American civil rights leader, not the German priest and professor who initiated the Protestant Reformation.

And I didn’t learn until I went to college that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, that Jonathan Edwards participated in the Great Awakening, and that Maimonides was a great Jewish philosopher. Fewer than a third of the people polled by Pew got those last two right.

Maybe black church products like me would have scored better with questions like this:

1. How is Thomas A. Dorsey most often remembered by cultural historians?

2. What do the initials in the A.M.E. Church stand for?

3. What is America’s largest black religious denomination?

4. What do these songs “Negro spirituals” have in common: “Steal Away,“ “Wade in the Water“ and “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”

ANSWERS:

1. “The father of gospel music.”

2. African Methodist Episcopal.

3. The National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.

4. Their lyrics provided coded escape instructions for slaves in the South. (The “drinking gourd”  is the constellation that contains the North Star.)

Little factoids like that are why I think education about religion is a good idea, regardless of whether we believe or not. We understand Americans better when we understand what Americans believe -- and why.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

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