Despite the fact that Americans claim to be a highly religious people—with 92 percent of Americans professing belief in God or a universal spirit—that belief does not seem to translate into knowledge of our own faith or that of others. A Pew Research Center poll released late in September reveals how little Americans know about religion.
This knowledge gap has real-world consequences, including a hindered ability to evaluate religious claims from political candidates or religious groups, a shallow view of world events, and a weakened capacity to critique the claims of those preaching religious intolerance and hate. Closing the religious knowledge gap is an important step in lessening these problems.
Americans need some religious schooling
Surprisingly, the Pew poll found that atheists and agnostics know the most about religion—particularly religion in public life. Mormons ranked highest on questions dealing with the Bible and Christianity. Jews ranked highest on questions dealing with world religions.
Many experts speculate as to why atheists and agnostics would know the most about religion. Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum, suggested to the Los Angeles Times that “American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study.”
Pew’s findings show that Americans have much to learn about the world’s religions. Only 27 percent of Americans know that Indonesia is a primarily Muslim nation, for example. Less than half (47 percent) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Out of 32 questions, atheists scored a high of 20.9 correct answers while Hispanic Catholics scored a low of 11.6. The average score was 16 correct answers.
Religion pervades politics
Given such dismal answers the question arises as to whether it is important for Americans to be well informed about our own religious traditions and those of others. After all, we’re a nation founded on the separation of church and state. Why does it matter how much we know—or don’t know—about religion?
It matters very much, in fact. Separation of church and state—which was written into the Constitution in order to protect religious liberty, not forbid religious practice—has encouraged a flourishing of religious belief and practice in this country over the centuries. Some of this belief is expressed in personal or private ways. But people of faith also participate in civic life and speak out in the public square.
Religious institutions serve their communities and advocate for social justice. People of faith work on poverty, immigration, the environment, and more. At times religious institutions and leaders are involved in politics, advocating for or against pieces of legislation including comprehensive immigration reform and same-sex marriage.
Additionally, polls show that Americans’ religious beliefs are “highly influential in shaping their views about social issues.” Some religious groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops oppose contraception, for example, while others, such as Catholics for Choice, support it.
The public needs to be well informed about the appropriate role of religion in a pluralistic democracy as well as the various teachings of diverse faiths. And as candidates increasingly tout their own religious beliefs—sometimes conflating religion with politics on issues such as global warming or Israel—it is important for people to be able to discern politics from theology as well as valid expressions of faith versus intrusions of doctrine on a diverse citizenry.
In sum, religion’s prevalence in American politics makes it important for Americans to possess a solid grasp of diverse religious teaching and traditions so that they can determine the validity of religious claims—be it a faith group’s support for one issue or a politician’s religious rhetoric opposing another.
Understanding world religions
Likewise, it is important for Americans to have a basic understanding of religions and cultures of nations around the world. We live in a globalized community where borders are increasingly nonexistent and religion is often a powerful force for either violence and division or for social cohesion and good.
Stephen Prothero, a religion scholar at Boston University, writes: “From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world.”
This means that it is just as important to understand a nation’s religion as an expression of its culture as it is to know that nation’s geography or type of governance. Cathy Lynn recently emphasized this point in USA Today: “Can you take a stance of foreign affairs if you don’t know that Indonesia, like Pakistan, is primarily Muslim?”
Islam in America
A lack of religious education can have serious consequences. This country has recently seen a dangerous surge in Islamophobia—much of it stoked by a well-orchestrated campaign of right-wing groups and leaders. But anti-Muslim hate speech has unfortunately gained traction partly because the public knows so little about Islam.
A Pew poll released in August shows that 55 percent of Americans “do not know very much” about Islam while 25 percent “know nothing at all.” Despite this lack of knowledge 38 percent of Americans have an “unfavorable” view of Islam and 35 percent believe that Islam “is more likely to encourage violence than other [religions].”
Americans might have less negative views if they knew, for example, that Islam is compatible with Western values and democracy, that it teaches peace, and that Muslim Americans have been part of this country since before we were a nation.
The importance of religious literacy and education
September’s Pew poll shows that less than a third (23 percent) of respondents know that the Bible can be taught in public school classrooms as a form of literature. The sacred texts of other faiths can be taught as well, providing children with a broader understanding of both Christianity and other world religions.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the Texas State Board of Education recently squandered a valuable opportunity to educate the children of Texas about world religions and their history. According to NYDailyNews, school board member Randy Rives called for a resolution to reject social studies textbooks that “offend Texas law with respect to treatment of the world’s major religious groups by significant inequalities of coverage space-wise and/or by demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over others.”
The resolution stems from a claim that more sentences in social studies textbooks were pro-Islam or anti-Christian than pro-Christian or anti-Islam. The Texas school board approved the resolution by a 7-5 vote, urging textbook publishers to limit what they print about Islam in world history books.
This decision could have major repercussions. Since Texas is one of the largest clients of textbook publishers, content adopted in Texas schools often leads to the adoption of similar content across the country. This is likely to have national consequences. John L. Esposito, founding director for the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University writes: “Islam is not the enemy. Ignorance is. And educators—in Texas or any place else—should never endorse it.”
But not all the news is bleak for religious education. American university students are increasingly recognizing the importance of understanding religious matters. Newsweek’s Lisa Miller describes religious studies at the university level as an “interdisciplinary major in which people study how religious beliefs and practices affect history, culture, politics, economies, and the world.”
She explains how valuable an understanding of others’ beliefs is in a world rife with religious conflict. “The number of bachelors’ degrees conferred upon graduates in philosophy or religious studies has doubled since the 1970s to nearly 12,000 a year, and has been rising steadily since 9/11.”
Moreover, some groups are concerned about Islamophobia’s rise in the United States, and they‘re pushing back against intolerance. For instance, White Cloud Press, based in Ashland, Oregon, is offering a half-price sale on books it publishes about Islam.
According to the publisher’s website, the promotion aims to “to help Americans better understand Islam and the Qur’an.” The company hopes to spread rather than suffocate religious understanding: “Rather than burning a Qur’an we hope Americans will be learning about the Qur’an.”
Islam is the current target of religious intolerance. But it is not the first religion—and will probably not be the last—to face public opposition based on ignorance. Better understanding of religions—those at home and abroad—among Americans can help prevent intolerant speech and actions, enable citizens to discern religious claims on their own shores, give them a more nuanced view of foreign affairs, and make it more likely that we better practice the teachings of religions: respect for others, compassion, and goodwill.
Brian Thorn is an intern with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative. He is a senior at the University of New Hampshire.