Believers don’t know belief

Ask a typical believer about the importance of religion and they are sure to tell you all about the immense value and significance of religion. This is a bizarre response, however, in light of the fact that most religious people know very little about religion.

The widespread phenomenon of religious ignorance is neither new or in need of further demonstration, but a new Pew Research Center project has reminded us just how bad it is. In one part of the study, American believers could average no better than 16 correct answers on a basic-knowledge 32-question religion quiz. Interestingly, atheists fared much better. Nonbelievers averaged 20.9 correct answers out of 32. Yes, nonreligious people tend to know more about religion than religious people do.

Religious ignorance is not an American problem exclusively. It’s global. I have travelled widely and spoken to many people about belief. Have no doubts, the general lack of awareness about present and past religions is nothing less than astounding. For something that is supposed to be so important, it seems few people are interested in learning much about it. Clearly the world’s believers need a crash course in religious education. This is especially important given humankind’s traditional fondness for faith-based hate and bloodshed. It seems like common sense to me: before one dislikes or distrusts a fellow human being over differences of religious preference, one should at least know the basic facts about his or her religion, right? Furthermore, how can people be sure they are adhering to the correct or best religion when they don’t know anything about all the others?

We must acknowledge that is it irresponsible and reckless for hundreds of millions of people to know virtually nothing about what the majority of the world’s population believes. (Yes, you are in the minority no matter what your religion is. Christianity currently is the world’s most popular religion, for example, but more than 60 percent of the world’s people are non-Christian.) Honest religious education—not to be confused with singular religious indoctrination—matters. We all need more of it given religion’s role in influencing history and current events. One cannot presume to know much about humankind if the world’s religions are mostly a mental blank.

Strangely, most religious-illiterates I encounter seem confident that they have it all figured out just fine. It’s like they see themselves as car experts despite only knowing a little about Honda Accords. They have no interest in how many tires are on a Volkswagon because it’s not their car. They have never even heard of BMWs, Fords, and so on and they don’t care if a Subaru runs on gasoline or sunflower seeds because it’s not their car. It’s no different with religion.

Many religious people don’t even know as much about their own belief system as they may imagine. The Pew study discovered that 45 percent of US Catholics, for example, don’t know that the official teaching of their church declares that Communion is real and not symbolic, that participants are supposed to literally be drinking blood and eating flesh in a process called transubstantiation. More than half of Protestants in America do not know who Martin Luther was. His actions sparked the Protestant Reformation yet most Protestants have never heard of him. Wow.

Another eye-opener in the Pew study was the percentage of Americans who don’t know what the Koran is. After the 9/11 attacks, long wars in two Muslim countries, and with millions of Muslim citizens living in the US, how can 46 percent of Americans today not know that the Koran is the Muslim holy book? Again, this is not America’s failure exclusively. I have discussed Islam with many non-Americans—including Caymanians—who had never heard of Mohammed or the Koran. Even Europeans, who tend to be more knowledgeable than most about religion, are not immune from this problem. Many of them, in my experience, know little about Hinduism and Buddhism, for example. I also have had discussions with some Muslims who had strange and incorrect ideas about Christianity, Judaism and atheism. This is a pandemic of ignorance that goes far beyond shrugs and giggles. It’s scary.

Most concerning are government leaders who know little about what others believe. They may make important decisions based on a worldview that includes misguided cartoonish notions about various religions. Supernatural beliefs—regardless of whether they are valid or not—are too important to far too many people for political leaders to be stumbling around in the dark. For example, George W. Bush attacked Iraq while having no idea that there were two rival versions of Islam—Sunni and Shia—present in that country. That was more than simply stupid; it was deadly. Bush’s inexcusable ignorance about religion may have had a lot to do with the mismanaged occupation that cost many thousands of lives. It was like getting involved with the problems in Northern Ireland without knowing there was such a thing as Catholics and Protestants.

There is already plenty of fuel for friction and conflict given the contradictory claims of religions. We cannot afford to allow rampant ignorance to fan these flames forever. Accurate and unbiased religious education is not only long overdue for most people in most places, it is also one of the world’s urgent priorities.

Guy P. Harrison is the author of “50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God”. Contact him at 
[email protected]

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