Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Pew Survey on Religious Knowledge

The poor showing of Americans on general religious knowledge has gotten a lot of attention over the past few days when the results of the work of the folks at the Pew Forum. were made public. Basically, most Americans know little about their own faith and even less about other faiths. Here's a summary of the research from The New York Times. The most knowledgeable Americans were those who identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. Even though I found the results dismaying, particularly the results for those who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, I was not especially surprised. Here's why:

1. For Christianity in particular, the days of "Christendom" are over in America. Before the Bible permeated much of daily life in commerce and education. Those days are past. No more is there "accidental" exposure to the Bible such as in reading stories, reading resources and other material. The Christian "smell" has been removed, slowly, from the public sphere. There are hold out spots, but generally, the commons have been secularized.

2. Experience has triumphed over knowledge. Having had a "spiritual experience" is more important than having the theology to explain spirituality. Furthermore, experience is more valued now, in general, than theology. The Heart has won over the Head.

3. The Political Correctness of this day discourages knowing facts and having strong opinions about controversial issues--and there is nothing more contentious than religion. It is not PC to hold definite knowledge and opinions about anything concerning such topics. So why develop opinions or work to obtain knowledge?

4. The philosophy of Relativism and the philosophical atmosphere that it created, post modernism. Nothing is objectively true. What's true for you may or may not be true for me. If that is so, why bother being versed in the thinking side of faith, whether your own or other faiths?

5. Just plain ol'laziness. It takes time, and it's work to understand most sacred writings. Even though the Bible (and I would assume other holy books) are available in very accessible English translations and paraphrases these days, you actually have to pay attention and read carefully to understand what has been written. Easier to leave that explaining to the leader of your faith congregation--or just not bother at all and bask in the emotionalism of the moment.

This has implications for faith communities of all kinds. I'm Christian, so I think of it from my Christian point of view. The biggest implication is that when you talk with someone of spiritual things and the talk turns to the Christian faith is that you must not assume that the person you are talking to has any foundation for faith talk. Many words and terms used commonly in the past will have no meaning to many people, especially the younger set. Assume nothing. Even faith talk in general, not just "Christian lingo" may be a foreign tongue. Also, now the Christian faith is just one of many faiths in the arena of ideas vying for a person's interest. The playing field is a lot more level. There is no more built-in cultural knowledge and acceptance for Christianity.

This is just one angle to look at this from--some see the lack of knowledge as either a precursor or a result of the decay of American society. I might think about that in a future post, but let me just say this: There have been so many changes and influences on American society over the past 50 years, it would be hard to pin down one particular issue as a possible cause, including this one.
And I would wager you would even get a few people who might argue that we have improved as a society, not decayed.


Bob G. said...

A brilliant post.
And, because I'm one of the faithful, maybe I'm a bit biased...

I've lived by TWO things when it comes to following HIM:

You really cannot have one WITHOUT the other.
In most every case, knowledge begets's the DISCERNMENT of that knowledge.
Or perhaps one can say it's the practical and proper application OF that knowledge.

Either way works...and works well.

And I believe that the LACK of either or both WILL contribute in no small way to the decline of the American society.

Recent history has proven as much to those that know what to look for.
We're following much the same path as the Roman Empire, and we all know how well THAT worked out for them, eh?

Hearing a sermon every Sunday is one thing, but actively LEARNING about the WHAT and WHY you believe what you believe is another thing,

If we have indeed "improved" as a society (on the whole), it's certainly not in any spiritual sense that I can see evidence of.

Thank God there are still those among us who WILL carry that torch and are not afraid to place it under that bush to shed some light into the darkness.

American culture is BASED in the Judeo-Christian beliefs and principles.
And maybe a little "book-learning" wouldn't be all that bad for OUR culture these days...
Just as a reminder.

Keep the Faith.

the observer said...

Bob G:
Good comment as usual! Epic reply alert! :)

Yes, the end of the post was a little cryptic but that was almost on purpose. There are people out there who think of religion as "primitive" and something we have to evolve out of. Of course, as one of those Christian wing nuts, I don't buy this.

I do think that in many ways our society has yielded to slow decay into disorder. It is not irreversible but it's going to take a lot of energy to get order back. Part of that energy comes from a sensible spirituality. I do believe that the Christian faith is the right faith to use as part of that. That is my "faith jump"--my belief in the power of God and in His love.

Faith is at base something that is universal. It can be informed or ignorant. All belief systems require faith--even atheism. We are built to have a belief in something bigger than ourselves. When we disconnect from that in general--leaving us with Darwin and Hobbes--and in particular, from JudeoChristian tradition, it is bad for us, both individually and as a society.

Rush'd Lady said...

Considering the devotion I just posted on my craft blog . . . :)

the observer said...

Rush'd One:
Thank you for the link!

Folks into crafts should visit my friend--she's the Frugal Crafty Lady in the Bloggyhood!

The Observer