Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pew Religious Knowledge Quiz: Commentary

The intrepid researchers at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life have recently published the results of their study on American religious knowledge. Average scores were pretty lousy. The obvious response is a self-righteous rant about how ignorant this country is, but really, what does that teach us? There are more important issues that we should address before concluding that these scores are tragic.

The big preliminary question is what kind of knowledge is most important for people to have in order to have good personal and public lives in a religiously pluralistic society? And my answer is that they need enough knowledge to understand, discuss, compare and evaluate the fundamental values of the most prominent religions, including their own. Shapeless as this answer is, it seems to degrade the importance of the Pew study. The study asked multiple choice questions about religious teachings, scriptures, famous figures and about legal issues surrounding religion. A person could correctly answer each of these questions and nevertheless lack all of the soft skills I listed above.

However, the reverse is not true. These weren't exactly $64,000 questions; they tested very basic knowledge of religious issues that a mediocre high school education and occasional newspaper reading would easily provide. They tested the sort of foundational knowledge that is necessary to have an intelligent discussion about religion and its role in public life. Of course, the importance of the questions varied - one can probably understand Judaism well enough without knowing a thing about Maimonides, but one cannot compare Christian and Muslim views of scripture without knowing the name of the Islamic holy book. It is probably safe to say that people who are unable to answer basic factual questions about world religions cannot compare and assess them either.

If there is a uniquely Christian reason to concerned about these results, it is that the Christian Scriptures themselves are preoccupied with the competing religions of the times in which they were written. From the creation narrative, to the plagues of Egypt, to Elijah's encounter with the prophets of Baal, to the books of poetry and prophecy, the Old Testament presents the God of Israel in contrast to the gods of paganism. John begins his gospel with allusion to both Genesis 1 and the Greek philosophical organizing force of Logos; Paul's evangelism at Mars Hill acknowledges Roman religious life. And our ability to follow these examples begins with a foundation of fact.

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