Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

Who’s religiously literate

I spent yesterday participating in a symposium at the Newseum in Washington marking both the roll-out of the new Pew survey of religious literacy and the upcoming God in America series on PBS. The not so subliminal message: Watch the series and become less religiously illiterate.

Actually, the Pew findings, which received so nice a heap of attention that it crashed their website, shouldn’t be taken as an indication that religious knowledge has reached some kind of low ebb in the American population. So far as can be told from the spotty evidence, most people in most places at most times have not known much about their own religion, much less anyone else’s. A famous study by the historian Gerald Strauss of episcopal visitations at the height of the Lutheran Reformation in the 16th century found that despite being subjected to serious catechetical instruction, ordinary Germans knew very little about doctrine or Scripture.


The headline in most places was that atheists have more religious knowledge than anyone else. Shocking? Not so much. As Pew researcher Greg Smith pointed out, Americans who identify themselves as atheists (or agnostics) tend to be those who have taken the trouble to form an educated opinion about religion. Those who do not believe in God and who think the Bible is not the word of God score significantly higher than those who do.

Speaking of education, that’s the most important factor in determining religious literacy: The more highly educated you are, the more religiously literate. This may seem counterintuitive, but consider these additional findings. After controlling for other factors, it turns out that Democrats score higher than Republicans or Independents, while liberals score higher than conservatives or moderates. And people over 65 do worse than people under 65, and Southerners do worse than those living in other parts of the country. What gives?


The key is that the 32-question test is broad-based–predicated on the idea that religious literacy means knowing things about a variety of religious traditions. Only 12 questions deal with the Bible and Christianity. Nine have to do with “world religions” such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Religiously literacy, by this standard, requires a certain cosmopolitan breadth of knowledge. It has little to do with religiosity.

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Preston True

posted October 2, 2010 at 10:02 am

I’m grateful the Pew report has received the attention it has for one reason: it’s driven a conversation about religion to the surface of mainstream America.
And, I’m also disappointed in both the content and context of this report. As a person deeply engaged in my faith, this report smacks of nothing more than media hype. There are many reasons the Pew Forum report is misleading and of little value – I wanted to express four:
1) Just a Pie Crumb – How can 3,412 participants accurately reflect the opinion of a country whose population is more than 310,390,246 (
2) Information Up-Chuck – This report clearly states the primary driver of religious knowledge is derived from information retention and regurgitation: “Data from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge.” This statement significantly decreases the credibility of the entire report as it’s clear that religious knowledge is primarily dependent on the amount and accuracy of information retained by an individual participating in the survey. How many of us remember, with any degree of accuracy, our 9th grade algebra? If it’s merely a question of how much information a group of people retained from formal education, this is an inaccurate and useless report.
3) Political Safety – We exist inside a culture in which “religion” is considered a topic that should be avoided in conversation. How come? Likely because our individual beliefs stir passion and when we speak of our “religion”, emotions are closer to the surface. Unfortunately, our common culture (including our educational institutions) frowns upon emotion – we’re made to believe emotion is a bad thing. However, the Pew report declares “People who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely or never discuss religion.” Seems like we’re in a bind – we’d be more religiously literate if we talked more about it, but our culture makes it taboo. Now what?
4) Absence of Faith – This is the most glaring oversights I’ve found in the Pew report. It says nothing about the level of, or engagement in, one’s faith. Consider this… one of the most pressing questions all business organizations face is employee engagement. High turnover, lackluster results, and lack of accountability are all results of disengaged employees. In other words, the lack of engagement results in low performance scores/reviews. One of the best ways to combat those low performance scores/reviews is to help individual employees find the purpose behind the work they’re doing… the passionate answer to the “why am I working here” question. What if we were to spend more time asking the question “why do I believe what I believe”? Regardless of denomination, this question forces us to engage in, explore and discover our faith. In that process alone, our knowledge of religion would increase exponentially and it’s likely our desire to know more about other religions would blossom as well.
I greatly appreciate the Pew Research Center’s commitment to educating and informing us on a wide array of contemporary issues. And it would be terrific for all research organizations to widen the aperture in both participation and perspective when publishing well-intentioned, but poorly-delivered information.
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