This Week in God

THIS WEEK IN GOD…. First up from the God Machine this week is a fascinating study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that Americans tend to be a deeply religious people, who also happen to be “deeply ignorant about religion.”

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

I had originally thought it was likely that education levels could explain this, with atheists and agnostics perhaps having a more extensive academic background, but Pew researchers found that “atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups” in the survey, even after controlling for education.

Though the Pew Forum didn’t explore this much, it’s hard not to wonder why atheists and agnostics are so much more knowledgeable about faith traditions they don’t adhere to than actual monotheists. Jamelle Bouie’s speculation struck me as persuasive.

As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority.

Also from the God Machine this week:

* Federal tax law prohibits tax-exempt institutions, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan political campaigns. Nearly 100 politically conservative pastors ignored the law, on purpose, endorsing candidates from the pulpit, in the hopes of starting a legal fight that would overturn the law in court.

* This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Snyder v. Phelps, a case about the rights of a fringe hate church to protest at the funerals of fallen U.S. troops.

* Anti-Muslim vandalism continues to be a problem in communities nationwide, with vandals spray-painting the words “Worship Satan” along the side of the Masjid Qooba mosque in St. Louis.

* Mormons have launched a TV ad campaign showing “regular people doing regular things,” before identifying themselves as LDS members. The commercial intend to “address stereotypes” and “influence how people think of the religion.” (thanks to R.P. for the tip)

* And in Alabama, the Democratic candidate for state attorney general is in some hot water after telling a group of voters, “You have people who say, ‘How in the world can you say you are a Christian and you are a Democrat?’ Well I don’t know how you can say you are a Christian and be a Republican.” (thanks to D.J. for the tip)