Once again, screaming headlines in the news: “Atheists know more about religion than Christians,” or something like that. The Pew Forum produced another one of its polls that seem designed to get headlines, if not careful analysis. A poll of some 3400 Americans asked 32 questions about religion. On average, atheists got 20.9 correct. Evangelical Protestants got 17.6 correct and mainline Protestants scored even lower.
Two articles I read, in the NY Times and AP pointed out that neither Protestants or Catholics knew some of the basic tenets or historical details of their faith. 45% of Catholics didn’t know they were supposed to believe in transsubstantiation; 51% of Protestants don’t know that Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation.
That atheists and agnostics answered more questions correctly than Evangelical Protestants is hardly surprising. The survey questions about Islam and other religions, and no doubt most Christians got few of those questions correct.
What’s the takeaway? My guess is that if the Pew Forum polled clergy about the religious knowledge of their congregations, they would receive strongly-worded replies about their inadequate understanding of their own faith.
This past Friday, Professor Tom Long of Candler School of Theology at Emory University spoke to clergy and laypeople in Madison. He told a great story about a rabbi friend of his in Atlanta who was invited to attend an interfaith group meeting that involved members of his synagogue and members of a nearby Protestant church. When asked what he thought of the meeting by someone in attendance, he said something like, before you can have interfaith dialogue, you have to know something about your own faith and suggested that he knew more about Christianity than many of the Christians in attendance.
The problem is not unique to churches. Americans seem to avoid thinking deeply about anything or wanting to learn. Is it a problem of our educational system, the media culture? But it’s a tragedy that we can’t seem to do anything about it in church, either. If people wonder why my sermons are long on historical background and the biblical text, it’s because I’ve realized that the pulpit has to be the primary locus of education in contemporary Christianity. Now, whether or not the people will stay awake, that’s another question