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Religious (Yawn) Knowledge

Well, the blogosphere is abuzz this week with the results of a survey on religious knowledge conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life—particularly the fact that atheists and agnostics scored highest on the quiz.  The sheer volume of words being devoted to these results makes me hesitant contribute still more.  Whether it’s Christians desperately explaining the results away or atheists/agnostics pointing to them as yet one more piece of evidence demonstrating their intellectual superiority over their benighted religious brethren, it all gets very tiresome.

Nevertheless… and because, well, I just can’t resist saying something, I will offer two hastily-assembled reactions to the results of this quiz:

  1. No group has much to be proud of here.  Even the top score—20.9/32 or 65% on a quiz where the questions really are very basic (see for yourself here)—is pretty sad.  It makes me wonder about where we’re going culturally.  How will we make sense of global history without some understanding of religion?  To whom will/do we look for wisdom if not our religious traditions?  Where will we go for ethical guidance?  What resources will inform and guide our wrestling with questions of meaning and purpose?  Do these questions no longer matter to us?  Have we given up on them?  Do we just pretend they don’t exist and go an amusing ourselves to death?  Do we think they will be answered by analyzing the brain states of rats?  I can’t help but think that a culture as religiously uninformed as ours is worrisome on a number of levels.  Perhaps people are turning in droves to philosophy for answers to these questions…  Or maybe not :).  Something tells me that a Philosophy 101 quiz would yield even poorer results than this one…
  2. The Christian results are embarrassing and deplorable, but not because they demonstrate they’re we’re not as well informed or intelligent as agnostics/atheists or anything like that (although in some cases, this may certainly be true).  Rather, they demonstrate that we’re not doing our job very well.  I take it as axiomatic that a Christian’s primary duties are love of God and love of neighbour.  Love of God would seem to compel me to learn and grow in knowledge of Scripture and tradition and the various other ways God has made himself known.  Love of neighbour—especially in a pluralistic postmodern context—would seem to compel me to go to the effort of learning a bit about what my neighbours actually believe.  This isn’t hard to do.  Anybody with access to the internet can learn at least something about their neighbours’ beliefs, whether their neighbours are Wiccan, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or anything else.  And we don’t go to this trouble simply to add ammunition to our apologetics arsenal, as if learning about other religions is only useful to the extent that it can be used to prove that they are wrong.  We do it because our neighbours are human beings (not potential converts), made in God’s image, with hopes and fears and existential needs very similar to ours, and because listening honestly to others is an act of love.

In both cases above, it seems like we think that religious knowledge just isn’t worth the bother.  And in a socio-political context that is becoming increasingly pluralistic, that is troubling indeed.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tyler Brown #

    I’d like to see the test results of people’s (so claimed atheists) knowledge of evolution… now that’d be interesting.

    September 30, 2010
  2. Great thoughts. Certainly knowledge in general is decreasing, as Neil Postman predicted, and Christians are indeed failing badly. (And if Postman is right, the Internet won’t help.)

    I had a thought about your last comment – that “religious knowledge just isn’t worth the bother … in a socio-political context that is becoming increasingly pluralistic.” This is indeed troubling, but those two factors may be related. In late modern liberal democratic capitalist societies like ours, ‘religion’ is constructed as a category of products available for consumer choice and self-branding just like clothing styles or music genres. Under such a definition, someone might ask: why should I should care to learn about my neighbours’ curious subculture? One is emo, another punk, another Christian, another atheist; none of these lifestyle choices affect their lives or my life one bit. What matters is whether they’re liberal or conservative, democrat or republican, rich or poor, etc. In other words, ‘religion’ has ceased to be a major determinative factor for so many practitioners and observers. And this makes ‘pluralism’ much, much easier. We’re used to getting along with people that make different consumer choices.

    September 30, 2010
    • I agree with your assessment, Michael. Religion seems very much to fall into the “whatever floats your boat” category and we’re happy to leave each other to (and remain mostly ignorant of) our various choices. Ironically, we may make even more of an effort to familiarize ourselves with our neighbour’s consumer choices in relatively trivial matters (emo, punk, the myriad other ways we brand ourselves) than we do with religion. Not only is religion just another “lifestyle choice,” it’s one that plays less of a role in identity formation than the kind of shoes we wear or music we listen to (or computer we use). An even scarier picture!

      September 30, 2010
  3. Shawn #

    I think the polarization of politics and thought is the main reason for the low scores. People are so focused on winning the day for their side that they have basically stopped listening to any opposing view points. You are correct the questions are easy, I took the test and scored better than 97% of those polled. I have no post secondary education nor would I say I am well read in religious studies, it does not make sense. People who are smarter than I and better educated, just are not listening or willing to learn, it is truly sad. It is embarrassing for Christians but no one else should feel good about the scores either. Have you ever seen Jay Walking on the tonight show, were he asks general knowledge questions to people he meets on the street? Once he asked a college student what year Neil Armstrong landed on the moon? She replied 1867! Jay said “did they go there in a wooden space ship!”

    September 30, 2010
    • I remember Jay Walking (although not that particular episode). It seems a lot like Rick Mercer’s “Talking to Americans” on CBC. If these shows demonstrate anything it’s that ignorance is an evenly distributed resource :). Religion isn’t the only thing we’re clueless about, alas…

      I think you’re right about the polarization that goes on as well. We tend not to like loose ends or fuzzy edges when it comes to our worldviews, so we stake our claims and build walls around our positions and only “learn” about others to the extent that it helps fortify our own positions. I think the world deserves (and needs) better from us.

      September 30, 2010
  4. Ian Lawson #

    I read the results and felt embarrassed. I’m not sure I understand why this is the case. But I believe it is true. I’m appalled at how few Christians read a newspaper or even watch a news program with any regularity. I’m not sure it’s much different than the mainstream. We would rather be entertained by Hollywood than read a good book.

    Mark Noll spoke to this in part in “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” (1994). Not sure we have changed since his publication. We are called to love the Lord our God with heart, soul and MIND. I’m not sure Christians understand this. This is one of our challenges as pastors.

    In our church we have offered an annual “C S Lewis Christian Thought Series” of lectures for 10 years from world class thinkers. We might get 25% of our people out to hear the first of three lectures. Gary Habermas is coming next month. Over then years we’ve had scholars such as John Stackhouse, Craig Evans, Greg Koukl, Peter Flint, John Wawick Montgomery, Hugh Ross. We are trying to bring the academy to the church, but I’m routinely disappointed. I guess we are called to be faithful and and so we do not give up.

    September 30, 2010
    • Couldn’t agree more, Ian. I think that one of the main challenges of the pastoral vocation is to help people to intelligently, creatively, and sensitively read their world and their lives in the context of the broader story of God. But it seems like too often we take the easier route of creating and nourishing a parallel “Christian” culture that has very little to do with or to say in response to the broader world we are a part of.

      I think Noll’s book still has much to teach us, but like you I see little evidence that things have improved since his book was published. There are good signs here and there, but the big picture is still disheartening. I don’t think we yet broadly consider life long learning to be an act of discipleship. We don’t seem to know what to with ourselves without some kind of a screen in front of our faces. Are we using modern technology to learn about our world and our God? Maybe in some cases. I fear that more often we are drowning in an ocean of triviality…

      I think your church is to be commended for the efforts you are making to bring the academy to the church (even if the results are disappointing thus far). I think what you are doing is fantastic. In fact, I attended one of your early events when John Stackhouse was lecturing and it was one of the factors that started me on an academic journey that ultimately led to Regent College and writing a thesis under Stackhouse (I wrote about the story a while back here)! So don’t give up! Your efforts make a difference. They did for me, and I am very grateful for this.

      September 30, 2010
      • Ian Lawson #

        Ryan, you just made my day! It’s Sunday PM and I’m kind of vegging from the emotional drain of a long day. I had no idea of our link to your journey. Once in a while I get a glimpse into how our ministry impacts disciples for the kingdom. It helps to keep up the motivation.

        I take it you were not here when we had Hugh Ross! That rocked a lot of our people to the core. That was a tough time. But as a result we did draw a line in the sand that defined our future. I want us to spread a broad tent for our future. Today we are enjoying the fruit of that decision.

        October 3, 2010
      • No, I was not there for Hugh Ross, although I heard that one of the lecturers your church brought in created a bit of a stir. I guess he was the guy. Interestingly (#1), I was just having a conversation about one of Ross’s books with a member of our congregation on Saturday night. I’m going to be reading Who Was Adam? as soon as he’s finished. Interestingly (#2), John Stackhouse is coming to Nanaimo later this month to do a day-long session on the “new atheism” and the interaction between science and faith. I suspect he will ruffle some feathers among those in our congregation who attend as well :).

        October 4, 2010
  5. Ian Lawson #

    Yes indeed, H Ross was the most controversial we had here. At the same time he was one of the most gentlemanly scholars I have ever met. And I would add, a very orthodox statement of faith.

    After Ross, John Stackhouse was the next most controversial. He stirred the pot, in a good way!! John did a great job with his series of lectures on comparative religions (I don’t remember the title). That was the series where you met him and was inspired. We need to have him back again. He needs to present “Finally Feminist” to our church. We are in a state of unusual peace right now. I have found that a little controversy helps people to grow as they are forced to think.

    Thanks for your provocative blog. I will make a point to visit more regularly. Our mutual friend Tanya pointed me here some time ago. Then our friend Mark referenced it in a recent conversation. Thanks for bridging the academy and the church.

    October 5, 2010
    • Thank you for your kind words, Ian. I appreciate the encouragement very much. If you had Stackhouse present Finally Feminist to your church I just might be tempted to come back to AB for that one :). It’s a great book—and one sure to take care of any lingering “unusual peace!”

      I am going to be spending a week in November with both Mark and Tanya (among others). They are great people and great friends. I look forward to seeing them soon.

      October 6, 2010

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