Thursday, September 30, 2010

I didn't ace this survey because I'm agnostic; I aced it because I'm educated

The recently-released Pew Research Center U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey yields some fascinating results, most notably the most headline-grabbing finding, that “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”

Still, it’s difficult to be surprised, for two reasons. First, those whose belief systems are outside the boundaries of normative cultural Christianity are more likely to know why they occupy that space than do those who are content to worship as their parents did, without much need for evidence or argumentation. Second, and probably more importantly, while the survey does ask a few questions about specific theological matters, it seems much more designed to test respondents’ general knowledge about religious elements in historical and cultural contexts.

To be sure, it’s pretty embarrassing that over half of Christians and nearly half of Catholics got wrong what amounts to a true-false question about transubstantiation, or that 81% of Protestants and 91% of Catholics don’t know that the former but not the latter believe that salvation is achieved through faith alone. And that fewer than half of Protestants could identify Martin Luther from a list of three choices (the others being Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley) as the driving force of the Reformation is pretty sad. Even stuff any 2nd-grader should know seems to boggle the minds of a lot of people: on a multiple-choice question (!), over a quarter of Christians couldn’t identify the town where Jesus was born. Apparently they sang “O, Little Town of Jerusalem” in Sunday School.

Still, on questions about Christianity, Christians (barely) outscored the general population, averaging 6.2 correct answers out of 12 questions. White evangelicals averaged 7.3, beaten only by Mormons (7.9). But both Atheists/Agnostics (6.7) and Jews outperformed Christians in general on questions relating directly to Christian teachings, history, and world view.

It’s on the questions about world religions, especially those with relatively few US adherents, where Christians in particular fared poorly. Whereas Jews (7.9) and Atheists/Agnostics (7.5) both got over two-thirds of the 11 world religions questions correct, Protestants and Catholics alike managed well under half, both averaging 4.7. Similarly, the leaders in understanding of the role of religion in American public life (1st Amendment provisions, for example) were once again Atheists/Agnostics and Jews, at 2.8 and 2.7, respectively, out of 4 questions; Protestants and Catholics both averaged 2.1, or over 20% lower.

Overall, the bottom line here isn’t that there’s really a huge difference. To the extent that we can generalize at all, the conclusion is that American self-identified Christians know slightly more about the tenets and historical figures of their own religion than do non-believers, whereas those same Christians under-perform the norm by an even wider margin in areas like basic knowledge of world religions and the relationship between religion and, for example, free expression. Importantly, the level of sophistication required here is pretty low. Respondents are asked some pretty easy stuff: the Dalai Lama’s religion, the name of Islam’s holy book, the basic text of the 1st Amendment. In fact, anyone who gets more than a handful of wrong answers is either really stupid or purposefully ignorant… alas, that’s a whole lot of folks.

Indeed, for all the fact that the Pew folks themselves lead with the whole atheists-know-more-about-religion-than-religious-people-do thing, the real bottom line here is the stolidity and/or downright laziness of the average respondent. OK, so I’m probably not the typical American on this—whereas the average score was 16 out of 32, I got them all right (I confess that I wasn’t entirely confident of two responses). Of course, I fit a good deal of the profile of someone who, according to Pew’s analysis, would get a high score: I’m white, male, US-born, well-educated (including a single college-level religion course some 36 years ago), middle-aged and childless (why a couple of these criteria matter, I have no idea, but there you go). I have an on-line identity named for a bodhisattva. And, of course, I’m agnostic. I’ve also taught elements of both Hinduism and Buddhism in Asian theatre courses, so questions about who Vishnu and Shiva are, or what religion espouses the concept of nirvana aren’t likely to trip me up. But, of course, I knew the answers to those questions long before I contemplated taking, let alone teaching, anything about Asian culture.

There are some interesting seeming contradictions—for example, Republicans outscore Democrats in raw numbers but, all other criteria being equal, it’s the other way around. In other words, the Republicans polled may have been, for example, better educated than the Democratic respondents. Thus the average Republican score was higher, whereas college-educated Dems did marginally better than college-educated GOPsters, etc.

And that distinction is really the one that matters. It doesn’t make headlines because it’s simply to be expected: education makes a difference. Respondents who participated in religious education as children scored marginally better than those who didn’t (and we can assume the difference came in questions about their own religion). Those who have a high level of commitment to their own religion score slightly better than those who don’t. Those who discuss religion with family and friends do a little better than those who don’t. But the big distinction is also the most predictable: people with graduate degrees got over twice as many answers correct as those who didn’t finish high school (22.2 to 10.7). Those who took a religion course in college average more than four more correct answers than college-attendees who didn’t take a religion course, who in turn got five more right than those who never went to college. Well, duh.

In short, while there are some intriguing “gotchas” here, the most fundamental lesson is remarkably simple: if you want to learn about a topic—any topic—you’ll gain a little knowledge from someone trying to influence your opinion. You’ll learn more, though, from someone who wants to provide you with the facts with which to make up your own mind. Religious instruction vs. religious studies courses. My blog vs. my classroom. Fox News vs. real journalism.

But something else is clear, too. These scores are awful. Any reasonably intelligent, reasonably curious, and reasonably attentive high school graduate ought to be able to get a score in the mid-20s on this test. I’m frankly a little embarrassed that I knew only 30 answers with absolute confidence. And yet a 26, or a little over 81% (a B- in my grade book), qualifies as “top 10%.” A 23, less than 72%, i.e., a C-, would be better than the mean for people with graduate degrees. The average Christian got fewer than half of the questions right (I started to write “more than half the questions wrong,” which would have been inaccurate: “I don’t know” accounted for about half of the responses that weren’t the correct answer. If this were Jeopardy, those folks would have kept their money on those questions; they just wouldn’t have won any. So we could presumably add another couple of points onto lower scores if we wanted to give people credit for good guesses and not penalize them for incorrect answers—the way most Scantron tests work today, for example.)

Any way you slice it, though, these scores are deplorable, especially given how easy most of these questions are. Americans are consciously, unabashedly, willfully ignorant. And it’s getting worse. That’s how Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Sharron Angle have any suasion in our public life. It’s why the modern GOP is fast modeling itself on the Know Nothing Party of the mid-19th century: secretive (e.g. major funding of the Tea Party by the just-folks billionaire Koch brothers), rabidly chauvinistic (in the 19th century, the enemy was Catholics; now it’s Mexicans/gays/Muslims/blacks/single parents/teachers/unions/fill-in-the-damned-blank), and ultimately driven more by paranoia than by evidence. They probably think I’m equating their transcendent quest for ignorance with the phrase “know nothing.” That’s because they don’t know American history any better than they know the religion they purport to espouse.