Monday, October 04, 2010

Don't know much 'bout religion (Sunday Reflections for October 3, 2010)

This week the media have given quite a bit of attention to the release of a Pew Trust survey on the religious knowledge of Americans. The results were not what one many would expect—hence the media scrutiny.

A survey sample of over 3400 people was asked 32 questions about Christianity and other major religions. What was startling was that the religious group that scored the best was: None of the above. That’s right, atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than people who claimed to actually follow a religion. The groups that scored the next best were Jews and Mormons.

Among the zingers: More than half of Protestant responders did not know that Martin Luther began the Reformation. Nearly half of Roman Catholics did not know their church teaches that the Eucharistic bread and wine become the real body and blood of Christ, rather than just symbolizing it. There was also confusion about the political status of religion. While nearly 90% knew that public schools teachers are constitutionally prohibited from leading classroom prayer, only a quarter knew that teachers are allowed “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.”

Of course, this is not the first time that the ignorance of religious people has been exposed. As I wrote last week, Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism after a depressing tour of German parishes:

Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach….

Luther wasn’t one to mince words. More recently evangelical church leaders have reacted with alarm to awareness that many of their members are ignorant of the basics of Christian beliefs. This is dismaying to them especially because they put such high value on right theology and doctrine.

Yet Luther’s experience nearly 500 years ago gives us a clue that knowledge about religion—even one’s own—is not valued all that highly by average folks. Theologians and religious academics inevitably evaluate religions for what they believe and teach. Most religious people, however, value religions for their practices, values, traditions, community, and sense of identity.

As a freshly minted pastor, I too was initially horrified at how little church members knew about the Bible or the basics of Christian theology, let alone Lutheran teaching. That horror has greatly diminished over the years. And it’s not that I have simply become resigned to this state of affairs. Rather, my understanding of the place of religion in people’s lives and in the world has changed.

It’s been realized for quite awhile, for example, that theologians don’t initiate inter-religious dialog and cooperation. Average religious followers do that. Theologians come in much later to put their seals of approval on what has already been going on. Religious leaders, in a classic case of running to get ahead of the parade, come up with the fancy theological language and formal documents to bless what people have been doing on their own for some time. The reason, of course, is that average people aren’t blinded by doctrine and theology. They simply recognize the common humanity of people they live and work with, who happen to follow a different religious tradition.

It’s also no secret that in the modern world much traditional religious doctrine and belief has taken it on the chin. Science has simply made unbelievable most of the ancient and medieval presuppositions religion has been built upon. This has certainly explained some of the decline of religion in Western countries but many have been surprised that religion has hung on as well as it has.

Here again the fallacy may be in the assumption that value of religion for most people is in its beliefs. Over the years I have found the beliefs of many church members to be all over the map. Many are aware that science has knocked out most of the legs of religion’s theological stool. They just don’t care. For some it’s out of a defensive stubbornness but I think for just as many it’s because theology and doctrine isn’t why they’re involved with religion in the first place.

One person not surprised by the Pew survey results is Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists. He told The New York Times, “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Ouch. Yet there is some truth to what Silverman says. Put most religions under a microscope and you do find a lot of nonsensical beliefs and some pretty abhorrent behavior. Yet you would also miss something because getting up real close isn’t always the best way to see—you know: that whole forest and trees thing.

But frankly, that may be the mistake religion itself is making. As we all know, there is a lot of distress and hand wringing about the decline of religion, and especially Christianity, in modern Western society. In fact, we should probably be amazed it’s still around at all. That it is should tell us something about what religion’s true value: it isn’t in its doctrines or teachings. Religion is much more than what its books and teachers say it believes.

For that reason, the Pew results make sense. The people most aware of religious teachings are those most put-off by them. The ignorance of such things by many people claiming a religious identity isn’t surprising because that isn’t what’s important to them. The problem, however, is that those are often the things most important to the people trying to save or revive religion: theologians, bishops, preachers, and frankly the religious fanatics. If religion is to be saved, it may need to be taken away from the religious professionals and given to the ignorant amateurs who actually may know and understand it much better.

1 comment:

Michael_SC said...

Kindness, caring, love... this is the manifestation of religion that matters. Give me a kind person over the catechism-memorizer any day. Like you I have lost interest in the alleged 'crisis' of ignorance of the formulas, as if everthing will be OK once everyone knows the formulas.