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.
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