Jewish Journal


September 28, 2010

Maimonides, Communion wafers and religious ignorance


The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life published a study today that religious folk are assumed to be taking pretty hard. What does it mean—that’s the loose reference to the “Double Rainbow Song”—that atheists and agnostics know more about Christianity than Protestants and Catholics? Nothing unexpected, according to my boss at GetReligion:

That is just accurate enough to be misleading. It’s also not all that surprising. I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.

Or as I heard from another friend this morning:

I can’t be alone in thinking it would be more surprising if atheists/agnostics were LESS knowledgeable on basic facts than others. I mean, atheists have to be some of the most interested-in-religion people out there. It’s like how a son who hates his father remembers EVERYTHING about him.

So what actually did the survey show?

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.

In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.

There is a lot more in the study report here. It includes a chart of how members of religious groups scored on average on the 32-question quiz. If you think you could do better—and I’m sure you could—than test your knowledge here. But bettor beware: It’s hard than you may recall just to name the Ten Commandments.

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