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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