Americans lack religious knowledge

Karl Terry

We’re blessed in this country with religious freedom, but I worry a little about our ability to retain that freedom.

Because my memory, like my hair, is starting to leave me, I’ve taken to carrying a little pocket notebook. Among the things I write in that notebook are column ideas when I happen across them. One of those topics was religious freedom. It made it onto my list last month when a Florida preacher made headlines with his plans to burn the Koran on 9-11.

I didn’t get the column written before the thing had blown over and the preacher backed down, but at the time, I was conflicted by defending his right to free speech and wondering how a member of the clergy could be so intolerant.

The column topic lay unused in my notebook until this last week when a few things popped up that made it pertinent again.

First of all, my mother forwarded in an e-mail a link to a quick quiz from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Then the night I was getting ready to write my column, I came home to a segment in which Bill O’Reilly was debating Bill Maher about religion. Once again, there’s that religious intolerance as Maher verbally burned the Bible and Catholic O’Reilly dished it right back to his atheist guest.

Both TV celebrities stumbled over their own lack of Bible and religion knowledge. O’Reilly got the last word by correcting the Scripture reference Maher made and its context after the taped interview had run.

Let’s go back to the Pew quiz on religion for a minute. I took the 15-question, multiple-choice quiz and thought I had possibly aced it but instead only got 73 percent correct — missed four. That was good enough to tie my mother, but my preacher’s kid-raised wife got the perfect score.

The quiz had a variety of general questions about various faiths — things you’re likely to encounter about faiths other than your own if you read and watch TV. The graphs you get a peek at once you’re through with the quiz are a little alarming, though.

Anytime I score well above the average on a quiz with a 73, something’s broken with our society on that topic. The people included in the tabulated results for the study averaged getting half the questions right — 50 percent. Those of the Jewish faith scored best with an average from that faith of 65. Atheists and agnostics were next at 64 percent. Mormons were third at a 61 percent average.

Those who attended worship service weekly only scored a few points better than those who went seldom or never.

The survey tells me that we don’t have a lot of general knowledge of the religions of the world. I know from experience the things we fear most are those we don’t understand. If that is the case, it is likely our society is going to continue to wrestle with problems like the debate over whether or not the president is really Muslim, whether or not it’s a good idea to burn Korans or Bibles.

I believe you can and should understand the basics about others’ beliefs. You don’t have to agree with those beliefs to remain civil and respectful. A little tolerance might help ensure freedom of religion in the future.

You can take the Pew quiz at:

http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/