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.