Religious believers, religious knowledge

You may have seen press coverage this week of a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about religious knowledge among members of various American religious groups. Mormons, Jews, and atheists/agnostics scored highest, even after adjusting for education and income. White evangelical Protestants and Mormons scored highest on questions about the Bible and Christianity:

religious knowledge table from pew study

I liked what Jamelle Bouie said at Tapped (pointed out to me on Facebook by The Modesto Kid):

To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority. Put another way, there’s a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.

That makes a lot of sense to me, based on my own experiences as a Mormon, then as an atheist, then as an atheist dabbling in Buddhism. On the other hand, I’m the kind of person who can hardly believe that anyone wouldn’t know that Maimonides was Jewish. (Yet only 8 percent of respondents got that right! Come on, people! Maimonides, fer chrissake!)

Should religious believers know about religion, their own and/or others? Well, plenty of people are going to get what they want out of religion without knowing stuff that would enable them to score well on tests like this one, and that’s fine. I generally espouse a William James-esque, whatever-gets-you-through-the-night view of religion.

But religious believers have increasingly made claims over the past 30 years or so to participate in public life not by virtue of being citizens but by virtue of being “people of faith” — a rhetorical category that comes with an implicit demand for deference. And I think it’s fair to ask people who adopt the “people of faith” posture to know at least as much about “faith” as nonbelievers do.

4 responses to “Religious believers, religious knowledge”

  1. lane says:

    yeah and this whole system we have where obama has to have a walk with jesus. so stupid.

    it’s embarrasing how much mormons know about religion, and how their arguments as to “their” being the “true christianity” kind of make sense, in a huck finn kind of way.

    what gets to be irritating about religion is it’s claim on authority. and i guess that’s perfect for politics. i’m better qualified to lead because i strive toward god.

    whatever . . .

  2. And I think it’s fair to ask people who adopt the “people of faith” posture to know at least as much about “faith” as nonbelievers do.

    But this is the whole point of the category “person of faith”–isn’t it? That knowledge is a separate thing that should not be privileged?

  3. goingtohellinahandbasket says:

    I have resisted taking this test because I know I will be an outlier and will skew the atheist/agnostic results in a way I don’t want to. (Who the heck is Maimonedes???) I didn’t know the difference between old and new testaments till college, and I barely know the difference twenty years later. It is possible to resist all knowledge of religion if it completely and utterly skeeves you out. (I do, however, know a lot about Mormon polygamy in the 19th c., but that’s because it is relevant to what I teach…but that is not to say I know a lot about Mormon doctrine.)

  4. gthiah: I didn’t know the diff between Catholic and Protestant until I was in college. Everyone I grew up around was Baptist and I kind of just thought that was the same as Christian. And then later on I think we did a “comparative religions” thing in (Jewish) Sunday school where we went to some churches, but by that time I was avowedly uninterested in religion. I do feel bad that I don’t know a lot of this stuff, even though it all skeeves me, too. But I got 15 out of 15 on that quiz, so SUCK IT, RELIGIOUS PEOPLE!