It’s Banned Books Week again: You know, the week where we talk about all of the books religious parents have objected to in schools, but where we ignore the fact that religious books were prevented from making it into schools in the first place?
In fact, I did a search in the “Books Banned and Challenged 2008-2009,” for the word “Bible,” but it didn’t turn up anything.
Funny how that works.
Funny indeed, as he wrote this the same day that Pew released a major survey on religious literacy (Pew’s site is hammered, so I’m linking a press report), which found that only 23% of Americans know that a teacher actually can read the Bible in a public school, provided he or she treats it as literature. You can’t lead a religious lesson in public schools, including using the Bible as a source of religious truth. Most Americans know the latter (89%!) but only a quarter know that the Bible can be introduced as literature. So Cothran is in good company. But he’s still wrong.
The Pew survey is getting a lot of play because it found that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than religious people, with Jews and Mormons coming in a close second and third.
PZ and others are jumping on this to argue that this refutes claims that New/Extreme/Affirmative atheists know little about religion. This retort reminds me of a story from college.
At the University of Chicago, every student must pass a swimming test during incoming orientation, or they have to take a swimming class in order to graduate. The tale is told that one year, a new student arrived at the pool with her class, jumped in the pool, and instantly began flailing around. Lifeguards yanked her out, and after she caught her breath, asked the obvious question. “You obviously can’t swim, so why did you take the test? Why not just take the class?”
She answered, in typically U. of C. fashion: “I went to the library and I read every book on swimming, so I thought I knew how to swim!”
I think the well-informed atheists in Pew’s survey have the same sort of knowledge as our apocryphal student. They’ve read books and learned facts. They know what the hajj is, and can identify the leaders of different religious movements. They understand various rituals, and may even have seen a video of them, or perhaps attended such ceremonies with a friend.
And that’s knowledge. No doubt.
But they don’t know what it is to be religious. They have a grasp on religion on a fairly academic level, and can argue about it on that level. But most religious Americans don’t experience religion on that level.
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.
Religion appeals to people because it connects them to a community, because it connects them to their family (past and present), and because it fulfills a range of emotional and psychological needs. Atheists who want to wean people off of religion can do so only by understanding those appeals, and by finding ways to replace the benefits people get from religion. Attacking official doctrine and dogma may be appealing, but such arguments do as much to explain people’s experience of religion as books about swimming do to keep you from drowning.