A new poll released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed results that seem quite surprising at first. On a pop quiz of religious knowledge, people who identified themselves as atheists and agnostics scored better than anyone who identified with a particular faith.
The results show that while Jews, Mormons and atheists/agnostics performed best on the test, no single group would have scored higher than a D (on a 10-point scale) had the quiz been given in school. On an 8-point scale, the average score for every group would be failing: an average of 21 out of 32 answers (about 66 percent) was the best of the bunch. Even so, the disparity in responses is intriguing.
I quickly heard folks decrying the poor state of Christianity in the United States, arguing that churches need to focus more on teaching the Bible. That would have helped some of this quiz, but not much. It was not a test of Bible knowledge but contained wide-ranging questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. So, while respondents were asked to name the four gospels and identify which biblical character was identified with Israel’s escape from Egypt, they were also asked questions relative to Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
People who read widely or who have recently taken a course in comparative religions could have aced the quiz, but most Americans have a much more insular faith if they have any at all. Anyone who watches the news even occasionally should be able to identify Ramadan as Islam’s holy month and Mother Teresa as a Catholic nun. But it’s not surprising that people who haven’t studied other world religions could be uncertain as to whether attaining Nirvana is a goal of Hindus or Buddhists.
On subsets of questions relative to the Bible and Christianity, Mormons (7.9 out of 12) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 out of 12) scored best – but again at only a D average. On questions about world religions, Jews were most informed, averaging 7.9 of 11 correct responses, three higher than the national average. Atheists/agnostics were second at 7.5 of 11. Those two groups also performed best on questions about religion and public life in America, especially as it relates to the Constitution.
What shall we make of this? On the one hand, it may suggest that people who are most committed to their own faith traditions are simply less interested in learning about other religions, while those who do not claim a particular faith – or who have been persecuted by people of other faiths – are more likely to have examined other religions.
On the other hand, I suspect that education levels may be the major factor. I don’t have correlative poll numbers to back it up, but I think it’s safe to say that people who identify themselves as atheists/agnostics, Jews or Mormons are likely to have higher levels of education than black Protestants or Hispanic Catholics in America.
From the standpoint of U.S. Christians, what might we learn from this poll? For one thing, it’s clear that Christians in the United States as a whole are not very committed to religious education: when the various Christian groups can correctly answer only 4.2 (Hispanic Catholics) to 7.3 (white evangelical Protestants) out of 12 very simple questions about the Bible and Christianity, something is clearly lacking. I suspect most churches have decent education programs in place, but too many self-identified Christians have no interest in taking their faith seriously enough to learn more about it or teach it to their children.
Second, our ignorance relative to other world religions and issues of religion and the state is profound. Christian groups combined averaged only 4.7 out of 11 correct responses on questions about world religions, and 2.1 out of 4 correct answers on issues of religion in public life.
The fact is that we live in a pluralistic nation that’s part of a pluralistic world that has pockets of near-uniform faith traditions that are different from our own. We cannot expect everyone we meet to be Christians, to understand Christians or even to like Christians. If Christ-followers are to be a light to the nations, and if the people of the United States are to be good citizens of the world, we need to do less talking and more listening so we can become better informed about the beliefs and cultures of neighbors near and far.
If you’re curious about the quiz, you can take an abridged version and test your own religious knowledge.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.