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I’ve known for some time that America is far from being a religiously devoted nation, but I didn’t realize the population had become so religiously ignorant until I scanned a recent study made public by the Barna Group. According to their research, just two out of three Americans recognize Easter as a religious holiday, and less than half – 42 percent – connect Easter with the resurrection of Christ.

Those are staggering numbers, though I’m not sure how to interpret them because I don’t know how the questions were asked. The article describes the survey only as “a free response query” conducted through telephone interviews with 1,005 adults.

Different questions like “How would you describe Easter?” or “What does Easter mean to you?” would naturally elicit different responses. Evidently, respondents were given some freedom to talk about their understanding of Easter – and for many of them that understanding is apparently quite small.

Just 2 percent of those interviewed described Easter – the very core of the Christianity – as the most important holiday of their faith. Meanwhile, 2 percent thought Easter was about Jesus’ birth, another 2 percent said it was about his “rebirth,” and 1 percent said Easter celebrates Christ’s second coming. Three percent of those interviewed described Easter as a celebration of spring or a pagan holiday.

There is some truth in that last response, because some customs of Easter, like Christmas, originated in festivals devoted to other gods. The date of Christmas was chosen in part to counteract and calm down riotous celebrations during the Roman feast of Saturnalia, and the observance of Easter bears marks of the old Saxon holiday celebrating the birth of spring and a goddess whose name was Eostre.

Even so, it’s rather alarming that only 42 percent of American adults can point to Christ’s resurrection as the meaning of Easter. Even those identified as Christians don’t approach 100 percent: just 73 percent of evangelicals (by Barna’s very conservative definition), 55 percent of “born again” Christians, and 35 percent of “notional” Christians identified the resurrection of Christ as the meaning of Easter.

I’m not sure what to make of this, except to observe that many people who claim to have religious beliefs have little real comprehension of them. Are their churches doing an incredibly poor job of Christian education, or are they even attending? For many folk, if they’ve been to church on Easter lately, they must have slept through not only the sermon, but also the ringing renditions of “Up From the Grave He Arose!”

I wish the researchers had also asked how many families with young children expect to have a visit from the Easter Bunny this year – and whether they consider bunnies and eggs to be religious symbols.

Then again, maybe we wouldn’t want to know.

And maybe that’s part of the problem.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.

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