religious ignorance pew united states
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Here’s yet another excellent example of how when religion embeds in societies and normalizes over time, it can significantly corrupt assumptions about the realities of public life.

religious ignorance pew united states
A recent Pew survey showed that many Americans don’t know that the biblical “Sermon on the Mount” was delivered by Jesus. Artist Carl Bloch painted this imagining of the purported sermon in 1890. (Siembra Conmigo, Flikr, Public Domain)

In a survey published last month, the Pew Research Center found that slightly more than quarter of Americans (27 percent) today believe, incorrectly, that the U.S. Constitution allows a “religious test” to qualify candidates for public office. In fact, such faith qualifications are explicitly prohibited.

Pew also reported that 15 percent of Americans “incorrectly believe the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” (my emphasis), and 12 percent mistakenly assume the Constitution requires elected representatives “to be sworn-in using the Bible.” In fact, requiring such oaths of faith are also prohibited by the Constitution.

Such ignorance extends elsewhere, including to notions about the numerical strength of certain minority populations in the United States. For example, the Pew survey indicated that most American adults overestimate the proportion of Jews and Muslims in the country, when each actually comprises less than 5 percent of the population.

This matters, an exaggerated sense of Jewish/Muslim populations stokes the already overheated fears of racist and bigoted citizens who are hostile toward minorities, and who represent a substantive core of President Trump’s nationalist/nativist, immigrant-fearing supporters.

Overall, the Pew report concluded:

“Most Americans are familiar with some of the basics of Christianity and the Bible, and even a few facts about Islam. But far fewer U.S. adults are able to correctly answer factual questions about Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, and most do not know what the Constitution says about religion as it relates to elected officials.”

However, beyond the basics, Americans are generally very dim even about Christianity, a faith to which some 70 percent of Americans are affiliated.

Jews were the highest-performing group in the survey’s religious multiple-choice questionnaire, averaging 18.7 right answers, followed close behind by atheists (17.9 percent) and agnostics (17 percent). Evangelical Protestants came next, averaging 15.5 percent correct answers (Protestants as a whole scored only 14.3 percent). Trailing these groups were Catholics (14 percent) and Mormons (13.9 percent), who performed similarly to U.S. adults overall.

Although some groups performed better than others in the survey, the most telling takeaway is how poorly all did in general. By any academic measure, they all failed miserably in answering fundamental questions about religion, even though for most Americans religion is a fundamental significant part of their lives.

The survey results demonstrated, once again, that educational level correlated positively with how much religious knowledge a person had. For example, college grads averaged 7.2 more correct answers than respondents with a high school diploma or less.

To give you an idea of the questions Pew asked respondents, here are a few below (right answer is boldfaced):

  • Who delivered the Sermon on the Mount? (Jesus, Peter, Paul, John)
  • Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the Exodus from Egypt? (Moses, Daniel, Elijah, Joseph)
  • Which best describes the Trinity? (One God in three persons [Father, Son, Holy Spirit]); there are three patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob); coming of Christ foretold by three prophets (Elijah, Ezekiel, Zechariah); there are three Gods (Father, Mother, Son).
  • Which is the Catholic teaching about bread and wine in Communion? (They become actual body and blood of Christ), they are symbols of the body and blood of Christ.
  • Which group traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone? (Protestantism, Catholicism, both, neither)
  • When does the Jewish Sabbath begin? (Friday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday)
  • Which religion requires men to wear a turban and carry a ceremonial sword? (Sikhism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism)
  • An agnostic … (is unsure whether God exists, believes in God, does NOT believe I God, believes in multiple gods)

This last question’s “right” answer is itself misleading. An agnostic, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a persons who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.” The correct answer would be: “holds that the existence of God is unknown and likely unknowable.”

Wrong answers to the question about transubstantiation (the doctrine that the bread and wine of Communion actually become the body and blood of Christ) reflects how religious practice often becomes somewhat mindlessly habitual among adherents. It is an essential canon doctrine of Catholicism, yet only 50 percent of American respondents answered this question right.

A similar misunderstanding of essential Protestant dogma bedevils Americans as well. Only one in five Americans (20 percent) know that Protestantism traditionally teaches that salvation is achieved “through faith alone,” not piety, good works or other behaviors. This idea was a foundational revolutionary theological doctrine of the medieval Protestant Reformation. Surprisingly, only 37 percent of evangelicals answered this question correctly.

For me, the bottom line from all this is, as evangelical Christians aggressively continue to embed elements of their faith into America’s public square, against the clear intent of our Founding Fathers to create a secular republic, they don’t even understand very well themselves what they’re trying to embed.

They should read the Constitution far more closely, for starters, then their own holy books.


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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...