Religion in Society

Poll: Americans Know Virtually Nothing About Religion

| by The Volokh Conspiracy

By Ilya Somin

A Recent Pew Research Center survey of American’s knowledge about religion shows widespread ignorance. The study asked 32 mostly relatively basic multiple choice questions about various religions, and a few on religion and public life:

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.....

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 also widespread ignorance about constitutional restrictions on the teaching of religion in public schools. Most survey respondents believe that the Supreme Court has banned the teaching of the Bible even as “literature,” and most believe that public schools are not allowed to have “comparative religion” classes:

[A]mong the questions most often answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Fully two-thirds of people surveyed (67%) also say “no” to this question, even though the Supreme Court has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic” qualities, as long as it is part of a secular curriculum. [J]ust 36% of the public knows that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools. 

I. Who Knows the Most About Religion?

Which groups have the highest knowledge levels? It turns out that it’s atheists and agnostics (an average of 20.9 correct answers out of 32), though Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3) scored almost equally well (the differences between the three groups are statistically insigificantly. Atheists, Jews, and Mormons still score higher than other groups even after controlling for education. 

Interestingly, atheists and agnostics (6.7 correct answers) score significantly higher than Christians (6.0) on the 12 questions that cover knowledge of Christianity and the Bible. Mormons (7.9) and white evangelicals (7.3) are, however, clearly the high scorers in this subcategory.

II. Is Ignorance About Religion Rational?

In some ways, ignorance about religion may be rational, just like the equally widespread political ignorance. For most voters, it is rational to be ignorant about politics because most people aren’t much interested in politics, political knowledge is rarely useful for everyday life, and the chance of any individual vote determining the outcome of an election is infinitesmal. Of course, individually rational decisions not to spend much time acquiring political knowledge may lead to bad collective outcomes, such as poor electoral decisions and terrible public policies.

In the case of religion, theological knowledge has little utility for everyday life, most people have only limited interest in religious doctrine, and any one individual’s ignorance about religion probably has very little effect on society. Thus, it’s possible that most people are ignorant about religion for much the same reason that they are ignorant about politics. However, economist Bryan Caplan — a leading scholar on public ignorance — has some reservations about this analysis:

If people sincerely believed that their eternal fates hinged on their knowledge of religion, their ignorance wouldn’t be rational. If you could save your soul with 40 hours of your time, you’d be mad to watch t.v. instead. Unfortunately for religious believers, this leaves them with two unpalatable options:

1. Option #1: Deep-down, most religious believers believe that death is the end. (This is consistent with the fact that even the pious mourn their loved ones at funerals, instead of celebrating the good fortune of the deceased)....

2. Option #2: Most religious believers are so stupid and/or impulsive that they’ll knowingly give up eternal bliss for trivial mortal pleasures. But why then do so many believers show intelligence and self-control in other areas of life?

An alternative possibility is that most Americans believe that, in order to be saved in the afterlife, you just have to be “spiritual” in some vague way. So long as you believe in God (or perhaps multiple gods), the precise details of religious doctrine don’t matter too much. This is consistent with survey data showing that most Americans believe that a variety of religions can lead to salvation, but 50% say that you can’t be a good or moral person if you are an atheist. If all you need for salvation is a kind of vague general religiosity (plus, perhaps, some good works), then you don’t need much actual knowledge of religion.

This, however, still leaves open the question of why most people don’t make more of an effort to determine whether this kind of ecumenical spirituality is actually true. After all, many great religious leaders (e.g. — Luther and Calvin) argued that your soul can only be saved if you embrace the one true faith. Some atheist writers (e.g. — Christopher Hitchens) contend that you are more likely to become a moral person if you reject religion altogether. It may not be rational to reject these possibilities without investigating them in greater depth than most of the American public apparently has. On the other hand, it’s possible that getting at religious truth is so difficult that most people rationally choose not to study it in depth on for the rational reason that they are unlikely to increase their chances of salvation very much even if they do.

On balance, I think that religious ignorance is somewhat less rational than political ignorance, though far from completely irrational. But the issue is complex, and deserves further study.