Americans are always Shouting About Religion But Don’t Know Much About It

Did you ever wonder how all that hysteria got going in August and September about mosque-building in the United States, in which Americans demonstrated themselves mostly ignoramuses about Islam and behaved often in an un-Christian manner toward their fellow Americans?

The Pew Charitable Trust has done a poll, the results of which demonstrate that most Americans don’t know very much about the world religions, and indeed very large numbers of them don’t even know very much about Christianity.

So there you have it. We could have that circus, provoked by rightwing politicians like Rick Lazio and Newt Gingrich, only because they and most of their followings did not have the faintest idea what they were talking about. Religion is important in America in a way it is not, in say, France. But I guess it is only the idea of religion that matters– it isn’t necessary to actually know, like, facts.

Only about half of Americans even know that the Quran (Koran) is the holy book of Muslims! Almost no one has ever heard of Maimonides or can place him as a great medieval Jewish thinker.

Less than half can name the four Gospels, or know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Over a fourth don’t know that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt or that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Among Christians, Evangelicals and Mormons scored highest on knowledge of the Bible and Christianity, but they didn’t know much about the other world religions (a.k.a. for many of them “works of the devil”).

Those who did best on the quiz across the board were Jews, atheists and agnostics. They didn’t know quite as much about Christianity as the Evangelicals and Mormons, but they knew as much or more than mainstream Christians, and then they knew way more about the world religions and about the place of religion in American life according to the constitution.

It isn’t odd that atheists and agnostics know a lot about religion. They’ve looked into it in order to come by their doubts honestly. People willing to inherit their religion and just quietly accept tradition typically don’t need to do much active searching or studying. Atheists and agnostics are more educated than the general run of the public, and so would know more about a lot of subjects. The same is true of Jewish Americans, who are typically highly educated. Moreover, since holding on to one’s religious beliefs as a minority is tough, according to the American Religious Identification Survey, [pdf] many Jewish Americans are atheists or agnostics, so that is another way that they overlap with those groups. (The number of self-reported believing adult Jews in the US has shrunk from an estimated 3.1 million in 1990 to 2.6 million in 2008, with many in the younger generation losing faith; there are about 6.5 million ethnic Jewish Americans).

The proportion of Americans in general who say that they have “no” religion [pdf] has gone from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008, so they are a growing group (though the growth slowed in the zeroes). So on the one hand Americans are getting less religious, and on the other hand the more irreligious they get the more they seem to know about religion.

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18 Responses

  1. Over a fourth don’t know that Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt or that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

    That one fourth would be the educated fourth. We don’t know any of that, even if we’re familiar with the details of the mythology

    The remaining three fourths of Americans think they know.

  2. I took a look at the entire survey. The depressing thing is that most of the questions were pretty basic for anyone with even a mild curiosity about religion. Brings to mind the old gospel song, “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven that ain’t goin’ there.”

    • Why didn’t they survey Muslims? Or Buddhists or Hindus? I didn’t see any Asians under the ethnic categories either. I don’t get it. I personally fit under agnostic, but I didn’t see any category there that would cover my Asian family who remain Buddhist. How did they pick these groups?

  3. And we non-voters know more about how our political system works than voters do, but that’s one survey Pew isn’t going to do.

    We invested the time and energy to research how our system works because we cared, and we learned that there is no way to ensure that our votes are counted, that the person with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win, and that once people are in office, which is the only time that they’re supposed to represent us, we have no way to hold them accountable and have to wait until the next rigged election to try to replace them–in the meantime they can cause irreparable harm like killing millions of innocents and wrecking our economy.

    Of course, just as evangelists describe unbelievers as bound for hell, political party hacks describe nonvoters as apathetic.

  4. Agnostics/atheists know more than believers? Well, that’s why they call it “faith” (rim shot)

    I think the best demonstration of American Christian ignorance came when Stephen Colbert interviewed Georgia Representative Lynn Westmoreland about his campaign to post the 10 Commandments in both houses of Congress, and asked him: “What are the Ten Commandments?” It’s at 5:00.

    Here’s the url:—georgia-s-8th—lynn-westmoreland

    By the way, check out the gerrymandering of that district!

  5. This information is interesting, and to the extent we can make reasonable inferences through this poll it is useful in appreciating the world wholesomely.

    I once read a study (wish I could remember source/details), that compared “religious-ness” by national income/prosperity, and found there was direct correlation between countries with prosperity and less religion on the one hand, and those lacking prosperity and having more of the stuff.

    The one dramatically striking outlier in the graphical summary was the US. Maybe some ineffable poverty draws a certain type of seeking personality to this country, which has to be assuaged by massive material, and spiritual, consumption.

  6. “It isn’t odd that atheists and agnostics know a lot about religion.”

    The survey doesn’t show that atheists know a lot about religion. It only shows that Christians know even less.

  7. So on the one hand Americans are getting less religious, and on the other hand the more irreligious they get the more they seem to know about religion.

    That makes perfect sense.
    The more one learns about the doctrines of these faiths, the more absurd they appear.
    The more one learns about the people running these faiths, the slimier they appear, the leaders and the institutions.
    The more one learns about the people following these faiths, the deadlier you realize they are.

  8. This is what we know about Americans:

    63% thought that Saddam Hussein actively planned and participated in the 9/11 attacks
    66% of Americans don’t know that Obama is Christian
    71% oppose a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero
    74% couldn’t name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (when given 4 choices)

    The money statistic:

    76% of Americans identify themselves as Christian

    • Please cite sources for the percentage figures you have stated. Chose a name for yourself that is polite. Not one that makes incestuous references!

  9. This isn’t a comment on this article, but you’re the most knowledgeable person probably on this–any new developments on the kidnapped aid worker? Any idea on how terrorist threats to foreign aid workers has affected Pakistan flood aid? Just wondering. Thanks

  10. I find these statistics worrying. No, a bit disturbing. Surely knowledge about the world and history cannot be so backward among the religious American population? But, if it is, and these people form the backbone of a major political entity in the USA… It’s scary. I know not all Americans are like this, and I wish the Atheists and Mormons all the best in educating their fellow countrymen.

  11. The sad thing about that poll is that it heralds the atheist/agnostics as those with the most right answer but it avoids telling you about the fact that every group of people did horrible at it. 17.6/32 compared to 20.9/32 is about a 10% difference. If it was assigned a letter grade both groups would get an F.

    The real story is that we should all be disappointed with the results. Christians know the most about Christianity, Jews about world religions and Atheists about secular questions that have to do with religion. But again the performance in all of those categories is underwhelming.

  12. My reaction to the PEW Study, it looks like all that tax exempt land and property for Religious and Religious Educational Purposes is a waste. Scores look more or less like some reading and math levels in failing school systems.

    So let’s change policy. Could we have “Charter Churches and Temples” with regular high stakes testing of membership, no social promotions, extra summer school for those on the cusp of failure. When a congregation fails, then leadership gets removed and new leadership brought in to clean up the mess. Just go look at all the “educational buildings” attached to churches in your community, all off the tax rolls, and ask if this is a quality social investment of tax privilege?

  13. When I first started taking political science courses I had to do a paper on a 1980 Texas voter survey, which startlingly showed Texans on average far more liberal than their hero Ronald Reagan. Now I see parents begging Christian extremists to “educate” their children when they’re not even a part of their religion.

    I wonder if what I’m seeing is the desire for a faith-driven strongman to keep order, because we know ourselves to be too ignorant and lazy to take care of it ourselves, even if we don’t agree with the strongman’s policies. Of course, the faith in greed seems to motivate voters to put businessmen in office, on the assumption that the rich guy must have some ability that we lack. I’ve also noticed that people who defend teaching Creationism in schools don’t talk about the merits of the ideology, but instead express fear about “out of control” kids. In other words, we need our schools to break our children’s will with the myth of the all-powerful Big Daddy Jehovah.

    And the more complex and diverse our society becomes, the more we want someone else to do the dirty work of keeping order and protecting our selfish interests at the expense of others.

  14. Along the lines of my previous post about people wanting to obey religion, not understand it, here is a link to an article about sex-scandal-plagued “Bishop” Eddie Long and the enormous change he’s made to Protestantism that the media is too dumb to investigate:

    link to

    The key to the article is that Long overthrew the right of his congregation to overrule him, then convinced other church leaders to do the same, then elevated himself over all those churches as a bishop, with all authority flowing downward and all money flowing up. Yet he has contacts with white Pentecostal extremists who have recommended exactly this strategy as a pyramid-scheme march to global conquest. The term is “steeplejacking”.

    Bishops? For this to happen in Baptism is shocking, but it is truly a total reversal of the populist spirit of Pentecostalism. What is left is the desire to surrender rational comprehension of the rules and intent of religion in exchange for a delirium of mass obedience.

    Why do they get away with it? It appears many Americans want a new authority in their life to replace the messy democracy they must share with people different than themselves, and which they so easily sell out to their bosses’ agendas.

  15. Actually, I think all too many Americans are just too stressed out.

    The Religious Culture, the Political Culture has talked a great game about “Family Values” in the years since the late 1960’s, and with increasing intensity. At the same time, work life has been profoundly changed to the point that between a child’s birth and adulthood at 18, they spend a little more than a year’s less hours with Parents, other family and friends who are adults, and other responsible adults. With both adults out of the home working full time, or perhaps multiple jobs, and with the fact that these changes have not really improved the economic security of most families, the whole “Family Values” routine has been a con game.

    Most children learn about their family religion(s) when something about it is present in the home, it is talked over, and perhaps even critiqued. When time is subtracted from family life, this is probably one of the things that goes by the board. So too does conversation about politics, arts, current events, and much else that is not a response to the stresses of the world of outside work, in which children do not really share.

    My Father has been dead for years — but I am still involved with a conversation with him that began in about 1955. I got a small role in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and at that point he told me my 13th Great Grandmother was the last woman to be arrested in the Salem Witch Trials. Not tried, thankfully, but the family made a quick exodus from MA. We decided to research it together, and over the years dug out all sorts of material on all the beliefs one could associate with those events. Then we went on to all sorts of other religious possessions and responses. Every time I find a new detail, that old conversation continues. For that to happen, on any topic, a family has to have time to delight in the process of discovery. Sadly, I think we have offered it up to fake greed.

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