Religious Trivia Contest Results

There’s been a lot written in the last day or so about this Pew Foundation Survey on who knows what about religion. Like most such surveys these days, they have a really easy online quiz version that you can take and marvel that anybody missed any of these questions.

My first thought was to just tag some of the better reactions for the Links Dump, and leave it at that. The auto-posting feature has been broken for some time, though, and my Internet access will be spotty for the next several days, so it’s easier to do a quickie post pointing out the more worthwhile posts on the subject that crossed my RSS feed:

First of all, Razib and Matt Nisbet both identify the same reason for the groups who ended up on top being in that position. Nisbet’s explanation:

1) Each of the highest scoring groups is a very small minority in a U.S. culture dominated by other belief traditions. Under these conditions of minority status, there is much higher motivation for members of these groups to seek out, acquire, and retain knowledge about their own beliefs, the beliefs of others, and the legal protections afforded religion.

2) This motivation to acquire and retain knowledge is amplified when these minority individuals also anticipate engaging in conversations or arguments with others–where as a small minority–they often have to defend their own beliefs.

In other words, contrary to some of the claims made today, it’s not that atheists are smarter or superior to other groups, but instead, the social climate in the United States encourages and motivates atheists to acquire higher levels of religious knowledge.

The easily distracted Tim Burke has a post questioning the importance of this kind of trivia:

What the public reading of these kinds of quizzes imply, however, is that this kind of knowledge is a sort of steady-state obligation that stands apart from any reason for it to commonly exist. You want to tell me that knowledge of Martin Luther is obligatory, especially for contemporary Christians, just because it is? Ok, fine. Why? And if so, believe you me, you had better not stop with the simple, heroic image of him nailing his theses to the door or represent him as a figure with a single revealed and finalized theology. You’d better not forget the messiness of his role in the violence of the Reformation or his anti-Semitism. If you’re obliged to know, you’re obliged to know the whole magilla.

Or maybe, just maybe, worry about him when he becomes relevant, when there’s some reason to know. And so too should we worry less and be interested more in what we find out about what people use and don’t use of the knowledge potentially available to them.

And finally, Josh Rosenau, the second-best blogger on religion and politics in America has a post on what this says about blogging:

This leads such atheists to argue past the beliefs, opinions, and concerns of actual religious people. For instance, you can find lots of efforts to mock Catholics for believing that communion wafers literally turn into the flesh of Jesus, and communion wine into his blood. This is taken as a sign of the sorts of foolish things religion forces people to believe. But only 45% of Catholics – presented with two options! – knew that Catholic dogma held to this literal transubstantiation, rather than a more symbolic reading. Catholics did as well at describing official Catholic theology as you’d expect from people guessing at random.

This means that an atheist criticizing Catholicism (and Catholics) for adhering to this belief is talking past at least half of Catholics (probably much more than half). And in doing so, they are missing the factors that actually bring Catholics to church, and misunderstand the appeal of communion to Catholics.

I don’t pretend to fully understand that appeal either. I don’t go to church, and I don’t take communion, and I don’t understand the appeal of either. Data like this, and the fact that religious Americans have so little of the sort of knowledge Pew was testing, tell us something about what religious Americans do value in their religious lives. It isn’t the details of theology, or even fairly big factoids about the Bible (e.g., given three choices, only 7 in 10 Americans correctly identified Moses as am important figure in the book of Exodus). The appeal of religion is not in the sorts of apologetics that so many atheists dearly love to skewer.

I’m on the road, and will only have spotty access, so I’m not likely to respond to comments to this post. This is just a pointer to people who are saying things that struck me as smart on this topic.

Comments

  1. #1 Onkel Bob
    September 29, 2010

    Luther is not as important as the ideas and reasons he fomented the reformation. The Roman Catholic Church (catholic means universal, and last I checked there’s an Orthodox Catholic Church too) had become (and some will say still is) tremendously corrupt. Luther’s position was a rebellion against the tyranny of Rome, and their stranglehold on society. Translating the “holy book” into the vernacular, so the lay people could read and understand the rules they were expected to follow was as much a crime to the RCC as anything else Luther did.
    Easily distracted Peter Burke is also tremendously ignorant if he thinks the faults of the greater society can be attributed to Luther. Pogroms were not new, they had been around since the diaspora. When the Crusaders came through town, marching to the ports where they sailed to SW Asia, heaven help you if you lived in the Jewish quarter.
    The thing is people claim to be members of certain belief systems but possess very little of knowledge of it. This was true in Luther’s day as it is now. At least then there was a stranglehold on the information, today it’s simply laziness and inbred ignorance.

  2. #2 Anton P. Nym
    September 29, 2010

    This means that an atheist criticizing Catholicism (and Catholics) for adhering to this belief is talking past at least half of Catholics (probably much more than half). And in doing so, they are missing the factors that actually bring Catholics to church, and misunderstand the appeal of communion to Catholics.

    This is why, I think, the “New Atheists” annoy me almost as much as the Fundamentalists: they’re both Biblical literalists, whereas most religious people I’ve met take their rites and doctrines from a metaphoric or symbolic perspective. Most of the faithful these days (at least in my social circles, in person and online) are less obsessed with the “magic spell” aspect of their faiths and more interested in the traditions and social continuity (including moral framework, in some) their beliefs provide.

    For disclosure’s sake I’m apatheist myself; I don’t see the point in getting wound up by matters of faith, so long as people can still go about their lives reasonably freely. It’s less that religion annoys me and more that dogmatism (theological or otherwise) rubs me the wrong way.

    — Steve

  3. #3 Dunc
    September 29, 2010

    The appeal of religion is not in the sorts of apologetics that so many atheists dearly love to skewer.

    Then why do so many people get so bent out of shape about it? I mean, sure, not that many Catholics actually believe in transubstantiation – but boy do the ones who do (or at least, claim to) come out of the woodwork if you dare to point out that it’s nonsense.

    It’s not just that “all believers are Biblical literalists”, but equally, it’s not just that “the appeal of religion is not in the sorts of apologetics that so many atheists dearly love to skewer”. Many people are drawn to religion for the non-theological aspects, but then take on all the theological nonsense as a marker of group identity anyway. And there are a heck of a lot of crude Biblical literalists out there, whether you like it or not. A lot of so-called “accomodationists” don’t seem to want to accept this simple fact – no matter how sophisticated you may be about your theology, there are a lot of snake-handling mentalists out there, and they’re pretty damn vocal about it.

    For disclosure’s sake I’m apatheist myself; I don’t see the point in getting wound up by matters of faith, so long as people can still go about their lives reasonably freely.

    A marvellous sentiment. I’m sure if it were more widely held, the “New Atheists” would be getting on with something more interesting and enjoyable. But as long as you’ve got YECs rewriting science textbooks and various nutters trying to get their own personal interpretations of scripture written into law (with some success, it must be said) then we’ve got a problem.

    Let me put it this way: it’s not sophisticated theologians trying to rewrite biology, physics, chemistry and history down in Texas.

  4. #4 wolfgang
    September 29, 2010

    >> communion wafers literally turn into the flesh of Jesus,
    transsubstantiation is a bit more subtle, since
    it means the change of bread and wine into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while all that is accessible to the senses (accidents) remains as before.

  5. #5 jim
    September 29, 2010

    Rosenau’s argument is suspect. The official position of the Church, as articulated by its hierarchy, is much more important than the actual beliefs of individual Catholics. The Church says that artificial birth control is wrong; that almost all married Catholics (and a fair number of unmarried ones), at some point, resort to it is irrelevant.

  6. #6 Sven
    September 29, 2010

    The Church says that artificial birth control is wrong; that almost all married Catholics (and a fair number of unmarried ones), at some point, resort to it is irrelevant.

    Which makes a difference in the real world (if you believe that such a thing as a real world exists), the official view of the Church or the actual behavior of the Catholics?

  7. #7 CCPhysicist
    September 29, 2010

    I thought the man-in-the-street interviews one of the evening news shows did were more informative than the poll. My favorite was the one with a person who said religion was about FAITH, not whether he knew quite what it was that he had faith in.

    One issue that interests me is the degree to which some Evangelical preachers appear to be Arian heretics in the way they talk about Jesus as a man distinct from God or as a separate god rather than “of one substance” as has been Church dogma since about 400 AD.

    I’m also easily entertained when I see someone driving around with a bumper sticker that says, in effect, “In Allah We Trust”. They have no idea what the Bible says when translated into Arabic, or that Moses is in the Koran.

  8. #8 MRW
    September 30, 2010

    “The official position of the Church, as articulated by its hierarchy, is much more important than the actual beliefs of individual Catholics.”

    Why?

  9. #9 Conan the Pseudonymous
    September 30, 2010

    “The official position of the Church, as articulated by its hierarchy, is much more important than the actual beliefs of individual Catholics.”

    Why?

    Because, if Catholics are made aware of it, they may feel that they should care about the official position, and that feeling can be used to motivate voters and donations. So a lot of Catholics find condoms convenient – of course they do. But when it comes to fund-raising in church, the rhetoric about giving to Catholic charities so as to ensure a moral, condomless approach to AIDS in Africa (for instance) is quite powerful. For the average Catholic, the issue of gays existing and even getting married may be a non-issue, but they still listen to the rhetoric, still give money, and it is this money that influences actual peoples’ lives. So the official position of the church is, in terms of actual public life (you know, the thing atheists care about), more important than the behaviour of ordinary lay Catholics. Further, most Catholics find child molestation to be absolutely disgusting, but the church authorities see fit to move kiddy-fiddlers from parish to parish. The official position has way more power to change things, so focusing on what normal Catholics do (apart from the challenges of identifying this, and defining what an “ordinary Catholic” is) would be somewhat counterproductive to the issue of raising problems with religion or Catholicism publicly.

    By the way, general statement: Rosenau is squirming over on his blog, trying to wriggle out of a position where he might possibly have to acknowledge the possibility that many atheists have both intellectual and experiential knowledge of religion. It seems like he badly wants it to be true that atheists are simply dangerous ignorami.

    I’m an anthropologist. I know a lot about religious experience from the inside. I’ve analysed ritual and religion from around the world for years and years. I’m also an atheist, and so is Maurice Bloch, for example, a man who is seldom condescending and who can objectively and brilliantly analyse religious belief and ritual while simultaneously believing it to be utter bunk. As a human being, I’m opposed to religion as strongly as Dawkins, and it’s not through lack of knowledge – intellectual or otherwise – of what it means to be religious. It’s my bread and butter. So I actually find it a little offensive, the idea that, because I’m an atheist, I could never actually understand religious belief. It’s patronising. Just because we don’t like it doesn’t mean that we don’t understand it.

    Anyway, Rosenau keeps on saying that, until we understand why people are actually religious in the real world instead of the world of theology, we can never remove religion from public life. I can say from a professional standpoint that the reasons for being religious are completely different for each person, and each person’s reaction to their nominal religion varies a lot. There’s a variety of views. It’s not a simple answer. It’s not “atheists don’t understand what religion means to people”. It’s more like “atheists are on a continuum in terms of religious belief, stretching from strict fundamentalist views and daily church attendance, through more moderate religious belief, postmodern religious views (syncretism &c), and agnosticism, with corresponding differences in understanding of specific parts of doctrine and religious experience, something which also varies depending on geographic location, upbringing, and personality, and is thus more of an individual variable, albeit with a fair amount of regularity across the self-identifying population”.

    But, of course, it’s so much easier to bracket off atheists as being weirdos who don’t get religious belief like true believers, who make up the majority of religious people somehow…

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