Tuesday, September 28, 2010

On Religious Knowledge

Pew did a poll (a short, buggy version of which can be found here) of religious knowledge. The headline Tabarrok shares is to point out how well athiests and agnostics do: better than any other group. I note that Jews and Mormons do equally as well (ie - no statistical difference). Full results here. Commenters make some good points:
  • The questions are not about religion but "religious trivia" or "shared religious trivia" as some commenters have put it. That is, there is very little to do with belief, living the religion or being a good person. The questions are about identifying people in different traditions (Moses, Job, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, Joseph Smith) with a smattering of religious history. 
    • One very doctrinal question was a 50/50 shot: do Catholics believe the sacrament turns into the blood and body of Christ, or merely represent it? (The doctrine is called transubstantiation and it preaches the former.) 40% got it right.
    • Two others were to know that the Golden Rule (Do unto others...) is not from the Decalogue (Thou shalt and Thou shalt not) and that Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday. 
    • Two questions dealt with Supreme Court rulings on public school and religion (teachers may not lead in prayer, but MAY read from the Bible as a literary text).
  • Those who attend church weekly do better than those who do not attend, showing that religions' overall scores are being dragged down by their less-active adherents.
  • The effect of education is huge. This supports the accusation of this being about knowledge about religions rather than piety or faith.
I additionally point out that there is not one question about the New Testament itself. The Old Testament gets 3, Islam gets a couple (sort Ramadan as being Islamic and Islam as the major religion of Pakistan), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mormonism each get one (can you correctly sort nirvana, Shiva, and Joseph Smith respectively). Interestingly enough, the Ramadan question was answered correctly by 90% of Jews, way higher than anyone else. The killer question that throws every group into "I know less about religion than monkeys with darts" land is to identify a preacher from the First Great Awakening (see below the fold if you are so interested to learn more).

Had they asked which of {Peter, James, John, Paul} was NOT one of Jesus' original 12 disciples or to explain the doctrine of Christian liberty, I imagine the rest of the Christian community would have done much better. But then again, maybe not. If I restrict attention to only Christian questions (Biblical and Christian history) Protestants and Catholics still score 1 point below the average. Mormons come out with more knowledge of these questions than any other group.

The thing that made me laugh out loud was to learn that Mormons know the Old Testament better than anyone else. Now let me hurriedly retract that and clarify it. Mormons were more likely to identify Moses and Job and to know that the Golden Rule is not part of the Ten Commandments than any other group. ... More likely to identify MOSES?? Yes. Moses. I don't know if the difference between Mormons and Jews on that question was statistically different - I tend to doubt it - but there it is, 92%>90%. 70% of Mormons identify Job as a sufferer vs. 39% of everyone, 47% of Jews.
I mean, the only thing that would be stranger is if Mormons identified Martin Luther as the founder of the protestant revolution better than protestants. ... Oh wait. We did: 61% to 46%.

Now the sample size is about 3400 people. Assuming they didn't over-sample Utah or something, that means we're really only talking about a sample of about 55 Mormons. So by the fact that I got every question right, add 1-2%.

More about the First Great Awakening below the fold:
From Wiki: The First Great Awakening happened in the 1730s and 40s and was important for primarily American religion, but also British and German. It focused on people who were already church goers while the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s focused on people who did not attend.
It resulted from powerful preaching that gave listeners a sense of personal guilt and of their need of salvation by Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by fostering a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption, and by encouraging introspection and a commitment to a new standard of personal morality. ... Heimert (1966) argues that Calvinism and Jonathan Edwards provided pre-Revolutionary America with a radical and democratic social and political ideology and that evangelical religion embodied and inspired a thrust toward American nationalism.

The revival began with Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), the leading American theologian of the colonial era and a Congregationalist minister in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards came from Puritan, Calvinist roots, but emphasized the importance and power of immediate, personal religious experience. Edwards was said to be 'solemn, with a distinct and careful enunciation, and a slow cadence.' Nevertheless, his sermons were powerful and attracted a large following. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," is his most famous sermon. The Methodist preacher George Whitefield, visiting from England, continued the movement, traveling across the colonies and preaching in a more dramatic and emotional style, accepting everyone into his audiences.
My public high school English class had us analyze an excerpt from the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon. What was not pointed out there was that
"the majority of Edwards's sermons were not this dramatic. Indeed, he used this style deliberately. As historian George Marsden put it, "Edwards could take for granted...that a New England audience knew well the Gospel remedy. The problem was getting them to seek it."


  1. I suspect the reason most people did worse-than-guessing on question #15 is that, like me, they thought, "no, there can't be three Jon Edwardses!"

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. *chuckle* Actually ... I suspect it may even go further. You recognized that he couldn't be the John Edwards most people would recognize. It may be they thought John the politician was the one meant and so deliberately shied away.

    1 - Jon the preacher.
    2 - John the politician.
    But who's the third J.E.?

    Google recommends: John the psychic, John the chemist, Jon the photographer, Jon the race car driver, Jon the cinematographer, and Jon the computer programmer.

  4. These questions really have nothing to do with theological/religious understanding, but more with general knowledge of shared cultural background...

  5. Shared cultural background, now that's a much better phrase than religious trivia.

    I wouldn't say "nothing" though - knowing what's in the Ten Commandments or understanding transubstantiation does get down to at least a superficial theological understanding. I would wager that a person who didn't know who Shiva is would not understand much Hindu theology also.