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:
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.