I blogged on this last week, but there’s an interesting series of comments from scholars about the survey and what it reveals and doesn’t reveal. Perhaps the most interesting point, made by several of the scholars, had to do with religious knowledge itself. What constitutes religious knowledge? Is it being able to parrot doctrine in response to questions? Is it being able to recite the creed, or to know that Catholics believe the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ?
To take the latter question, if someone has deep Eucharistic devotion and is wont to meditate or pray at the Reserved Sacrament, yet cannot articulate the doctrine of transsubstantiation, do they believe that bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Their actions certainly suggest they are encountering the divine in some way.
Certainly, religion is more than doctrine and faith more than assent to a series of propositions. One academic suggested that part of the problem is that preachers don’t preach what seem to be core doctrines to theologians. Thus mainline Presbyterians rarely mention the finer points of Calvinist theology from the pulpit.
Wearing the hat of a scholar of religious studies, I grant the point. As a pastor, I also know that people attend and belong to churches for all sorts of reasons. Still, it seems to me that it can’t hurt to pose the questions occasionally, to ask people both what they know and what they believe, and to try to determine whether there are discrepancies between faith, religious knowledge, and religious practice.
One of the scholars brought up the category of “Lived Religion,” briefly put religion as expressed through ritual, practice, and the like. In my experience, some of the most vocal believers could express their faith easily in words, but did not demonstrate it either in their ethical actions or in their religious practice.
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