The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the findings of a new survey on religious knowledge in the United States, and the results should sadden the average American Christian. Atheists and agnostics scored the highest on general knowledge about religion with Jewish and Mormon respondents coming in close behind. The survey consisted of 32 questions about various world religions that are represented in the United States, including Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mormonism, and Christianity. The Pew Forum reports,
“On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.”
When it comes to questions specifically about Christianity, Mormons scored the highest at 7.9 correct out of 12, and white evangelical Protestants were second at 7.3 correct answers. Jews and atheists/agnostics fared the best on questions about other world religions.
While the Pew Forum reports that Americans are generally the most religious among the world’s developed nations, our level of knowledge regarding our own religions is lacking. They report,
“More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.”
The survey also asked questions related to religion in public schools, and the results are rather astonishing. While 89% acknowledged that public school teachers cannot lead their classes in public prayer, most people did not recognize the freedoms that teachers and schools do have regarding religion. The survey found that:
“among the questions most often answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Fully two-thirds of people surveyed (67%) also say ‘no’ to this question, even though the Supreme Court has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for its ‘literary and historic’ qualities, as long as it is part of a secular curriculum. On a third question along these lines, just 36% of the public knows that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools. Together, this block of questions suggests that many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are.”
So, what do all these statistics say about our country and our churches? First, I believe we can see that though the people of America claim to be very religious, much of that “religiosity” is merely cultural and not truly real. The study demonstrated that those with higher educational backgrounds answered more questions correctly. Therefore, it was mostly an intellectual knowledge that drove their answers rather than a personal, intimate belief.
Second, I believe it shows that the average church member does not fully know what it is they claim to believe. Now, this should not be taken as a blanket statement for all church members in all churches. However, I believe that every pastor would say that their people could stand to learn more about doctrine, the Bible, and what they believe.
Third, I believe this survey demonstrates the need for Christians to know and understand the basic beliefs of other world religions. Gone are the days when the vast majority of the people in America would label themselves as Christians. The United States has truly become a melting pot of religions in the last few decades. Thus, if Christians are going to share their faith with their neighbors and co-workers, they will likely need a working knowledge of religions such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even the philosophical worldview of secular humanism. There is a great need for our churches to teach apologetics and how to share the gospel with people from other world religions.
A personal example of this for me came several years ago on a trip to NYC with one of my seminary professors. We were walking through the city when my professor spotted a man dressed rather unusually. He obviously saw this as a teaching opportunity for the students. We walked up to the man who was managing his small storefront on the ground level of an office building. My professor began a conversation with “I see by your dress that you are a Sikh.” The man immediately looked up and asked my professor how he knew that. The prof then described his clothing and how that tipped him off as to this man’s religion. At that time, I had no idea how to decipher that from his clothing—I just thought he dressed strangely. However, that brief interaction about the man’s clothing opened up an opportunity for the gospel message to be shared.
The church in America has a great task ahead of her. We need to teach our people the Bible, doctrine, theology, and even some history. The average church member needs to know the basis of their faith. We must remember that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). Therefore, let us teach the whole counsel of God.
May we not be found ignorant of our faith, but may we always be “ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).