Americans Deeply Ignorant About Religion

By Duane Shank 09-30-2010

"The person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation was Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas or John Wesley?" Less than half (46 percent) of Americans know the answer is Luther, and only 53 percent of protestants.

Or, try this one. "Do you happen to know what religion most people in Indonesia consider themselves -- Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian?" Only 27 percent knew the answer is Muslim.

One more. "Maimonides was Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu?" If you know he was Jewish, congratulations --only 8 percent of Americans knew that, and less than half (43 percent) of Jews.

These are just three of the findings of a recent Pew Forum "Religious Knowledge Survey." The survey results showed that Americans are woefully illiterate in religious knowledge -- both of their own tradition and of others. The survey included 32 questions testing knowledge of the Bible, major religions and their sacred writings, and famous religious people. The average was 16 correct answers, with only 2 percent getting 29 out of 32. Interestingly, the group with the highest number of correct answers was self-identified atheists/agnostics.

The conclusion? "Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion," wrote Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.

She's right. It also strikes me that ignorance may have something to do with the apparently growing religious intolerance in the United States. Knowing about a religion leads to a greater understanding of its beliefs and practices, rather than seeing it as threatening.

Here is the full wording of all questions and survey results. Try it yourself -- here's a 15 question sample from the survey.

Duane Shank is senior policy advisor at Sojourners.

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