On September 28, 2010, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on their religious knowledge survey of Americans.
While the survey reveals many details about the relative religious knowledge and ignorance of different demographic groups, this article will only highlight a small portion of the Pew Forum's report and its possible larger meaning. Go to pewforum.org for the entire report.
Some of the Survey Questions and Results
The survey consisted of 32 main questions on religion and other questions used to categorize the respondents. The average number of correct answers out of 3,412 people surveyed was 16. Interesting enough atheists and agnostics answered 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly.
The questions pertaining to religion included a section that the report describes as World Religions (note that although the religions and topics in this section are practiced by millions of Americans, the survey creators chose to use the foreign sounding term World Religions for their report). Here is a brief summary of these questions and the responses.
Note that these are the questions from the report and not the ones used in the actual survey. The survey questions were slightly different with the multiple-choice options randomized for each person surveyed to avoid possible biases.
Is Ramadan the Islamic holy month, a Jewish day of atonement, or the Hindu festival of lights?
Islamic holy month 52% (correct answer)
A Jewish day of atonement 11%
Hindu festival of lights 7%
Don't know 30%
Do you happen to know the name of the holy book of Islam? (no options given)
Yes, the Koran 54%
Yes, the wrong answer 2%
No, don't know 40%
Which religion aims at nirvana, the state of being free from suffering? Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam?
Buddhism 36% (answer that best fits)
Don't know 43%
Note that nirvana is a term that is also used in Hinduism and Jainism.
Is the Dalai Lama Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, or Mormon?
Buddhist 47% (correct answer)
Don't know 23%
In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures? Hinduism, Islam, or Taoism?
Hinduism 38% (correct answer)
Don't know 52%
What is the religion of most people in India? Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian?
Hindu 62% (correct answer)
Don't know 16%
What is the religion of most people in Pakistan? Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian?
Muslim 68% (correct answer)
Don't know 19%
What is the religion of most people in Indonesia? Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian?
Muslim 27% (correct answer)
Don't know 34%
Who is the king of Gods in Greek mythology? Zeus, Apollo, or Mars?
Zeus 65% (correct answer)
Don't know 25%
Comments in an
LA Times Article
On the Pew Report
(Link to Article)
Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, advisor on the survey, and author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't, is quoted in the LA Times as saying, "I think in general the survey confirms what I argued in the book, which is that we know almost nothing about our own religions and even less about the religions of other people."
The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister from Leawood, Kansas, and the author of When Christians Get it Wrong, says in that same LA Times article that, "I think that what happens for many Christians is, they accept their particular faith, they accept it to be true and they stop examining it. Consequently, because it's already accepted to be true, they don't examine other people's faiths. … That, I think, is not healthy for a person of any faith."
Not having read Rev. Adam Hamilton's book, it's hard to say whether his reason is sound or not. However, the survey did ask the respondents about the frequency with which they read books and or websites on religions and the numbers seem to validate part of Rev. Hamilton's conjecture.
For those that claimed affiliation with a religion, they were asked if they read other books or visited websites about other religions
More than once a week 3%
Once a week 3%
Once or twice a month 8%
A few times a year 15%
Seldom, never, or don't know 71%
For those that claim no affiliation with a religion, they were asked if they read books or visit websites about religion
More than once a week 4%
Once a week 3%
Once or twice a month 9%
A few times a year 14%
Seldom, never, or don't know 70%
Whatever the reasons, a large percentage of people are not making the effort to learn about other religions. Even if one is set in their beliefs, it is important to know and learn about other religions, cultures, and history. That is part of the reason for Asian American Curriculum Projects' existence and most likely part of why you are reading this article.
Much research in psychology has and is being done on why we believe in what we believe. In preparation and research for this article, I found some interesting topics in psychology. One was on "Confirmation Bias" and another on a sub-topic called "Belief Perseverance." Both areas of research show how we hang on to our beliefs and avoid learning or fail to accept other points of view. Perhaps this is in large measure why our politics and disagreements are so antagonistic.
The research that I read seems to indicate that it is not enough to try to be unbiased. We must make a conscious effort to learn other points of view. Have a look at a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article on Considering the Opposite.