Comparative Religion Isn't Just for Academics

An interesting article popped up on the side of The New York Times recently--an article about the lack of knowledge among Americans about religion, including about their own. The article discussed the fact that on average, Americans were only able to correctly answer 50% of the questions on a recent survey by the Pew Research Center on the teachings and history of major world religions.

The first thing that stood out to me was the fact that even after controlling for differing levels of education, atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons answered more questions correctly than all other religious groups. The results gave no explanation for this, but I speculate that perhaps fringe groups are forced to think more about religion since the religion they belong to is not the norm--that for many people in this country their religion is not what differentiates them from the majority, and so religion in general is not a frequent topic of thought or discussion. However, I know that for me, at least, being Jewish is something that differentiates me for other people, and so I spend time thinking about my Judaism and relating it to other religions (this blog is a good example of that.)

What I find particularly interesting about the results of the survey is the lack of knowledge that Americans have about the role religion plays and is allowed to play in regards to governance. While 89% of people knew that a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer, only 36% knew that a school can offer a comparative religion course. To me, a comparative religion course seems innocuous, at worst, and incredibly useful, at best, so it's rather surprising that people expect it not to be allowed. In addition, only 23% of Americans knew that a teacher can read from the Bible as an example of literature in a classroom; that seems to me something that people should be aware of, especially so that people can make sure that there is a line drawn in school between a reading of the Bible as literature and as a holy text.

It worries me how little people in this country seem to know about religion. I'm no expert, but I think it is important to understand at least some basic things about other people's religious beliefs, especially when dealing with politics. The recent Park51 fiasco exemplifies the visceral reactions people have in relation to religion, and this survey shows how those reactions are very often based on little knowledge or facts. Consequently, often instead of having educated discussion, people simply devolve into having shouting matches--and nothing ends up getting fixed.

A recent opinion piece in The Washington Post makes a really good point about this, and suggests at least a partial solution: the author argues that all political candidates should be forced and expected to talk about their respective religious beliefs, and how their beliefs will affect them as political leaders. In an age when people know very little about each other's religions, including their own political leaders (you've all probably heard about Obama the Muslim), the American people should try to change that and not leave their knowledge of their political leader's religious views up to chance--it's too much of a risk. Asking candidates about their political views may not change the fact that Americans are not particularly educated about religion, but I believe that doing so could prevent Americans from buying into unfounded religious claims about their political leaders. Moreover, it has the potential to encourage dialogue predicated on the idea of increasing our knowledge about religion rather than the assumption that we all know everything, which, the survey shows, is definitely untrue.

We live in a multicultural world full of different religions--it's time to openly talk about religions, their differences and their nuances, rather than ignoring them, so that people can actually become knowledgeable. Religion has a huge effect on people's lives, and I believe that just as part of being an educated citizen is having an understanding of the demographics of our country and the ideals it was founded on, so too should be having at least a basic understanding of religion and the role it plays in this country and its people's lives. Doing so has the potential to make us all more tolerant and understanding citizens.

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How to cite this page

From the Rib. "Comparative Religion Isn't Just for Academics." 7 October 2010. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 23, 2024) <>.