A question about the Bible? Go ask an atheist
Although most Americans profess some level of Christian faith, surveys suggest atheists and Jews know significantly more about religion
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It does not exactly inspire confidence about the future of North America to learn that atheists and agnostics are less ignorant about religion than most Christians.
The United States is the most religious, most Christian, developed nation on the planet. The Bible infuses American politics. But, paradoxically, the rate of religious literacy south of the border is dismal.
A disturbing poll by the respected Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that U.S. atheists and agnostics, as well as Jews and Mormons, know more about religion than do most of the strong majority of Americans who are Protestants and Catholics.
However, even while these four subgroups show a relatively decent ability to name Genesis as the first book of the Bible or that most people in Pakistan are Muslims, the overall level of religious literacy in the U.S. remains about as low as a drunken beer hall argument.
Fewer than half of Americans can name the four Christian gospels, according to the Pew survey of 3,400 adult Americans. That's the same grim statistic that describes how many know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, the Koran is Muslims' holy book and that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation.
One-third of Americans falsely believe, according to other polls, that evangelist Billy Graham delivered the Sermon on the Mount. (It was Jesus.) And more than half of Americans do not recognize that Judaism is a religion.
Religious knowledge surveys are good at serving up black humour too. An early poll showed one in 10 Americans believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife. Another one in five believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple.
The implications of this religious ignorance are huge for the U.S., where more than nine out of 10 believe in God and 85 per cent profess some form of Christian faith.
However, I suspect smugness is not in order for Canadians (four out of five of whom believe in God, and two out of three who show at least a lingering loyalty to Christianity).
I would guess Canadians would do only slightly less poor than most Americans on the Pew Forum's quiz, which you can still take online (if you dare).
On average, U.S. atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons correctly answered between 20 to 21 of the Pew Forum's 32 questions on Christianity, world religions and laws governing faith in public life.
White evangelicals, however, averaged scores of only 17, while white Catholics and mainline Protestants were able to answer just 16 of the questions.
Why is such cluelessness dangerous for us all?
Boston College Prof. Stephen Prothero has outlined some of the worries in a best-selling book titled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -and Doesn't (Harper San Francisco).
Prothero's arguments go far beyond concern over how North Americans are becoming unable to understand the Biblical references of a host of writers, from Shakespeare to William Faulkner, Robertson Davies to Mordecai Richler.
Nor would many North Americans now understand the Jewish link when TV announcers refer to "David and Goliath," says Prothero. Or when politicians urge compassion for strangers by citing the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.
What is even more significant is that Christian illiteracy runs rampant at the same time two out of three Americans believe the Bible has the answer to all of life's important questions.
During the recent Bush administration, nine out of 10 members of the U.S. Congress said they always consult the Bible before voting on legislation.
The frightening social implications of North Americans' lack of knowledge about the Bible they profess to take so seriously -- or about other religions -- is perhaps most important when it comes to foreign affairs.
The U.S., Canada and other quasi-Christian Western nations are embroiled in long wars against two Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Yet, in an era marked by the West's "war on [Islamic] terrorism," most North Americans' understandings about Muslims remains at a "kindergarten" level, Prothero maintains.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York, some politicians tried to counter claims by the powerful Religious Right that "Islam is a religion of war" with the sweeping generalization that "Islam is a religion of peace."
Swept up by emotions, however, the majority of Americans had no knowledge on which to make any judgment. The Pew Forum study found that half could not name the Koran as the Muslim holy book, or Ramadan as an Islamic festival. Fewer yet knew any differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Given that most Americans profess some loyalty to Christianity, Prothero is also justified in worrying that their devotion to church leaders and the Bible is increasingly governed by sentimentalism ( "All that matters is I love Jesus") and super-charged moralism.
What happened to the Christian emphasis on intellect? With notable exceptions, a majority of American Christians don't bother to look up what Jesus actually said in the New Testament, or how various Christian denominations have handled important ethical questions.
This is not to let Canadians off the hook. I worry that Canadians, who are more inclined to be atheistic or agnostic than Americans, might take comfort in believing they would do better on the Pew Forum's religious knowledge quiz.
That self-satisfaction could even be more of a temptation in British Columbia, which has the most atheists on the continent -- 14 per cent of the population, compared to four per cent in the U.S. As an atheist Vancouver Sun colleague told me: "I'm not surprised at the Pew findings. We know what we're rejecting."
Which might be true, but only to a point. While the religious knowledge of the new celebrity foes of faith -- such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris -- is no doubt better than the U.S. average, it often falls frustratingly short. Dawkins et al. almost always find ways to avoid dealing with the insights of religious intellectuals.
Instead of believing that Canadians, and critics of religion, may have reason to feel good about their level of religious understanding, I would maintain the relatively high number of atheists in Canada, combined with the incredible diversity brought to this country by Asian immigration, make up strong reasons that Canada is in a position to lead the way on building more religious literacy.
Canadians need to know not only what Christians and Muslims think. They need to understand what beliefs fuel the actions of their next-door neighbours, who are often likely to be Buddhists, Jews, Hindus or Sikhs.
How can we better educate Canadians about their own religions, about the faiths of others, and about the philosophical beliefs behind secular humanism?
I join Prothero in suggesting we follow the European model and make world religion courses, also called world view courses, a regular and mandatory aspect of kindergarten-to-Grade 12 education.
As much as many university academics might hate it, I also suggest it would be beneficial to require one religious studies course of anyone wanting to obtain a bachelor's degree in Canada.
North American religious illiteracy threatens both our well-being as members of a civil society, and raises the spectre of grave misunderstandings in foreign policy.
Educators should not give in to the kind of unfounded anxiety that has traditionally barred efforts to make world religion courses a part of every Canadians' education.
Many in Canada's education system seem to have the same false belief of three in four Americans, who admitted to the Pew Forum pollsters they didn't know public school teachers are allowed to read from the Bible and other sacred texts as an example of literature.
As long as there is no sectarian preaching in public-school classrooms, there is absolutely no law in Canada or the U.S. against teaching facts and history about religious and other value-laden world views.
What exactly should be taught about religions in our schools?
Educators can start with the 60-page Dictionary of Religious Literacy that makes up the last third of Prospero's book. It covers almost everything that a reasonably informed adult should know about religion -- from Islamic fatwas to the Last Supper, from Reform Judaism to the Second Coming.
The time has come for many more Canadian educators to be teaching about Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Martin Luther and the Vatican, as well as about noted atheists such as Albert Camus and Bertrand Russell.
I can almost guarantee most people would find such world view courses revealing, and possibly even life-changing. At the minimum, for anyone with an open mind, they would at least be a bit of fun.
Read douglas todd's blog at www.vancouversun.com/thesearch