Friday, October 01, 2010

Jews & Atheists Top Ratings in Religious Literacy Study

Which religious groups know the most about their own (and other) religious faiths? Some interesting results along these lines were announced this week from the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey performed by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. There's some really great information to be culled from these results about how religious information is distributed in America, so I'm going to delve into it a bit for my own gratification ... and you're welcome to come along for the journey.
World Religious Symbols
(Art provided by

My Results
First, allow me to be self-indulgent for a moment and share my own results. The Pew Forum website has a 15-question quiz so you can find out how you rank up. I took the quiz and got 13 out of 15 (a score of 87%), which puts me above 93% of the U.S. population in religious knowledge. Only 3% of the population would have scored higher than me.

My two mistakes were that I didn't know the dominant religion in Pakistan and I mis-identified one of the key figures in the original Great Awakening. Only 11% got the Great Awakening question correct, but the Pakistan question has a fairly high rate at 68%. Honestly, on the Pakistan question I out-thought myself, because my gut instinct was correct but I figured that I was giving in to a stereotype and the real answer was probably something else. I should have gone with my gut. (There's a reason some stereotypes exist, I suppose.)

Interesting Results on the Quiz
Sorting through the data on the quiz yields some interesting results, which really just go to show that you have to really consider the data carefully. The overall population scores an average of 50% on the quiz. Here are some various breakdowns:
By Religion
  • Jewish - 65%
  • Atheist/Agnostic - 64%
  • Mormon - 61%
  • White evangelical Protestant - 54%
  • White Catholic - 51%   
  • White mainline Protestant - 48%
  • Nothing in particular - 48%
  • Black Protestant - 42%
  • Hispanic Catholic - 39%
By Worship Service Attendance
  • At least weekly - 52%
  • Monthly/yearly - 48%
  • Seldom/Never - 49%
By Gender
  • Men - 52%
  • Women - 48%
By Education
  • Post-graduate training - 68%
  • College graduate - 61%
  • Some college - 54%
  • High school or less - 40%
Now, remember, the above stats are the scores on the 15-question quiz, as compared with results from a nationally-representative sample of 3,412 adults. (The overall survey involved a total of 32 questions.)

Sorting through the data, there are some unsurprising results and some very surprising ones.

For one thing, we see the evidence that education in general also means you're more informed on religious matters. Growing up on the northern tip of the Bible belt, this merely confirms the evidence of a lifetime of frustrating conversations. If you're ignorant about everything else on Monday, chances are you were ignorant about church on Sunday. (It may also be of interest to consider this data from OKTrends which analyzes the writing proficiency levels of different religious groups on the OKCupid dating site. You'll have to scroll toward the end, past all the racial analysis, to get to the religious group data.)

Surprisingly, the people who never attend worship service do a little better than those who attend infrequently. The effect is only 1%, so doesn't mean much statistically, but it's not really surprising if you think about it. The atheists, who score high, presumably fall in the never/seldom category (along with many of the low-scoring "nothing in particular" group), while the people who go only monthly or yearly probably include many of the mid-range Catholics, mainline Protestants, and some of the "nothing in particular"group (who get dragged along to Easter service by their grandmothers). The result is that the group that has made a conscious decision to turn away from a religious life may be more well informed on religious issues than those who practice their religion in an indifferent fashion.

Item Breakdown
Now here are some extremely surprising results, from the item-by-item breakdown analysis by religious group. (There are answers given away in the data below, so if you want to know your rating take the quiz before reading further.)

  • There are 6% of self-identified Jews do not know when the Jewish Sabbath begins. (This is kind of a trick question - their Sabbath is Saturday, but it begins at dusk on Friday - though this shouldn't really trip up a Jew.)
  • There are 7% of self-identified Mormons who do not know the religion of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. In fairness, though, if they'd asked what religion Jesus practiced, most people would have probably gotten it wrong, too. (Hint: He was circumcised.)
  • 90% of Jews and 75% of atheists/agnostics correctly identified Ramadan as an Islamic holy month. No other religious group got higher than 55% on this question, and the only 52% of the overall population got it right. (Note that Muslims are not included in this data analysis. Presumably they'd have done well.)
  • Only 59% percent of White Catholics and 47% of Hispanic Catholics know that the communion is, in their church's view, a literal consumption of the body/blood of Jesus and not a symbolic one. This is a concept known as transubstantiation. Catholics who are not aware of it should ask their priest about it and watch him stammer all over himself as he tries to explain it in a way that makes sense.
  • For reasons I can't fathom, only 39% identified Job as the "Bible figure most closely associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering." (By comparison, 38% knew that Vishna and Shiva were central to Hinduism.) Jews really tanked on this one, with only 47%. Oddly, Mormons know their Book of Job - they got 70% on this one, far outstripping the 58% from white evangelical Protestants.
  • One question which all groups were uniformly well-informed on (89% got it right) was that public school teachers could not lead children in prayer. However, only 23% knew that teachers could reference the Bible passages as an example of literature. (Again, the Jews and atheists/agnostics, being the big readers of the group, were the ones who got this the most correctly, although still only in the low 40 percentiles.) More on this later.
  • Ironically, white evangelical protestants (52%), white mainline Protestants (46%), and black Protestants (40%) could not identify the man behind the Protestant Reformation as well as Jews (70%), atheists/agnostics (68%), and Mormons (61%) could.

The Results in General

Though Jews and atheists/agnostics did best overall, on questions specifically related to Christianity and the Bible, the white evangelical Protestants and Mormons did slightly better.

The Mormons, especially, know their stuff. My guess is that this is, at least in part, due to the fact that they must continually defend the idea that their religion is in fact a form of Christianity, especially against the white evangelical Protestants, many of whom believe they are a bizarre heathen cult that corrupts Christianity. (Or, in the case of Mormon Glenn Beck, the best hope for "restoring honor" to our nation.)

I think a similar issue comes with the atheists/agnostics. Most people are not born into this belief system, they come to it through analysis of their options and thoughtful rejection of the status quo. Not only did it require thought and study to reach this position, but many have to justify it over and over again to family and friends. Like the Mormons, they are in a continual intellectual conflict with mainstream America over their choice of religious views.

Judaism probably scores high for a very different reason.  The Jewish faith is one that prizes scholarship and study. their entire religious identity is tied to the fact that during their many wanderings (some voluntary, some involuntary), they maintained a strict book of cultural stories and laws which helped them maintain their unity as a people. During the diaspora in Babylon, they became a people of the book. So it's not surprising that Jews are, on average, a bit more well informed than Christians. Christianity cherishes love, emotion, and faith over more thoughtful religious methods. (This is, of course, an over-generalization of both Judaism and Christianity, but we're talking about the average in this case, so I feel that generalities are justified.)

Religion in Schools
I'm still culling through all of this data, but one thing that I find endlessly fascinating are the clear misconceptions that this study demonstrates. For example, while the most correctly-answered question  was  about whether teachers could lead prayer in public school, there was amazing misunderstanding about other aspects of how religion can show up in the public education system.

The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that public schools can offer comparative religion courses and can study passages from the Bible as part of literary and historical studies, but the vast majority of respondents didn't know this to be true. In the words of the study's executive summary:
Together, this block of questions suggests that many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are.
Again, this comes to a matter of education. I find that the people who complain most about the lack of religion in schools aren't really that informed about what religion in school constituted. Think about it ... does any religious person really want a public school teacher to be responsible for the religious education of their child? Do they really feel it's justifiable that Jewish children be forced to study Christian teachings? Even among Christianity, what if the teacher holds different viewpoints? How does a teacher respond to a student's question about faith healing, speaking in tongues, or angels and demons? These are things that some Christian traditions teach are literal, true, and fundamental elements of the faith, and others view as largely symbolic. What if the teacher is a Mormon or Catholic and the parent is an evangelical Protestant?

In fact, the more religious you are at home, the greater the danger that your faith teachings to your child will be called into question by religious instruction in public school, because the school will have to provide a broad range of religious instruction to satisfy the broad population they serve.

Part of the opposition to religion in public schools was that Catholic children were being converted by the overtly-Protestant education in the school system. Surely a Protestant parent in Utah does not want Mormonism being taught to their child, nor does a Mormon parent anywhere else want their religious teachings to be called into question.

But, of course, many people don't think about the issues very carefully. They react not with their (dare I say God-given) reason and thought, but with emotion and faith, to recall a false nostalgia where times were simpler. It is almost always a myth ... like the myth, apparently, that going to church on a regular basis makes one significantly more well informed on religion than those who don't attend.

And, on that note: