Jul 24, 2019

Boy, do we have a long way to go. That’s the major takeaway from the just-released Pew Research Center survey on “What Americans Know About Religion.”

As a whole, it seems Americans lack knowledge about the constituency and theology of minority faiths in this country. More often than not, respondents answered the survey’s questions about religious traditions outside of Christianity incorrectly. For example, a mere 15 percent of respondents could identify that the Vedas are sacred texts closely associated with Hinduism.

It may not come as a surprise, then, that awareness of constitutional protections for religious freedom was also underwhelming. Just 27 percent of the 11,000 American respondents knew that the Constitution explicitly prohibits religious tests for holding public office. Fifteen percent of respondents said they believe the Constitution requires federal officeholders to affirm that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – language that’s actually from the Declaration of Independence. And 12 percent believe the Constitution requires elected officials to be sworn in using the Bible. (It does not.)

There were some bright spots, though. There was better recognition of the particulars of Islam and Islamic tradition among the public than of other minority faiths, including Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism. Almost two-thirds correctly identified Ramadan as an Islamic holy month and a similar number rightly answered that Mecca is Islam’s holiest city.

It was Jewish respondents who had the greatest knowledge of religion, answering an average of 18.7 out of 32 questions correctly. Jews were followed by atheists and agnostics in the accurateness of their responses. This was true “even after controlling for education and other demographic characteristics.”

The study also laid bare misunderstanding about the relative sizes of religious minorities in the United States. A great majority of respondents overestimated or were unsure about the size of Jewish and Muslim American populations. It was only 14 percent of respondents who correctly answered that Jewish and Muslim Americans together make up less than 5 percent of the U.S. overall population.

The study also highlighted the benefit of interfaith friendship and communication. People who personally knew members of another religious faith answered questions about faiths in general more accurately.

In fact, more religious knowledge also correlated with greater positive feeling toward people of other faiths. As one example, Judaism scored an average of 54 out of 100 on the “feeling thermometer” (how “warm,” or positive, people felt toward the faith) among Americans who answered eight or fewer religious questions correctly, but a 70 with those who answered 25-32 questions correctly. The one deviation, however, was found in respondents’ feelings toward evangelical Christians, for which the result was opposite: Greater religious knowledge by the respondents translated into a colder feeling thermometer toward evangelicals.

Make no mistake: Religious extremists may try to use this data and apparent ignorance about religion in this country as an excuse to impose religion in school under the guise of Project Blitz-style “Bible literacy” classes. Clearly, we need more education leading to greater understanding and tolerance toward people of minority faiths. Respondents who had taken a world religions class answered an average of 17.3 questions correctly as compared to the 12.5 of the general population, proving that there is a difference between teaching about religion, which is acceptable, and preaching religion, which is not.