What we don't know about religion can hurt us

It's true that U.S. schools can't get involved in the practice of religion. But there's no law against teaching world religion as a subject, something  Americans could use, according to a recent Pew Forum study.

Crosscut archive image.

It's true that U.S. schools can't get involved in the practice of religion. But there's no law against teaching world religion as a subject, something  Americans could use, according to a recent Pew Forum study.

As a kid I had a bothersome allergy to insect bites and stings. A tiny gnat could make my eyes swell shut. A yellowjacket’s sting would leave me with hives over half my body for days.  

So, I got to know the enemy. I studied and collected insects. For a time, while a biology major in college, I was even curator of the school’s insect collection. 

Perhaps it is some such logic that results in atheists and agnostics in America knowing the most about religion, at least according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. I found insects both fascinating and dangerous, which I suspect is the way some of the non-religious feel about religion.  

According to the recent Pew survey of 3,400 Americans, we Americans don’t know a lot about religion. Among Americans who are religious, Jews and Mormons do better than others, coming in just after the atheists and agnostics. This also makes sense according to the “know the enemy” theory, as both Jews and Mormons have been up against it, at times, in (once) Christian America.  

On the Pew Survey, white evangelical Protestants got just more than half of the 32 questions right. White mainline Protestants didn’t even get half. By most grading standards both crowds failed miserably. Moreover, as a general population our religious literacy is quite low. 

Does it matter? What does the Pew study really tell us? 

It tells us that the Pew Forum people have gotten quite good at leveraging media attention and turning studies that might be a sleep aid into something almost sensational. 

One thing the study probably also tells us is that for most people who are believers, it’s not really about religion. It’s about God. It’s about the experience of a higher power, a power not their own. Rice University sociologist, Michael Lindsay, made a similar point, noting, “This study gives convincing proof that Americans may be deeply committed to faith, but that commitment comes most from the heart, not the head.” 

That said, and acknowledging that one could probably quibble with the Pew Survey questions, the Pew Survey tells us that we have a long ways to go in being ready to be thoughtful citizens of a religiously pluralistic society and world.  

Part of the blame does fall to churches and other religious congregations, which need to do a better job of helping people understand not only their own religion but the religions of their neighbors as well. Learning something about the faith of our local and global neighbors should be one form of “loving thy neighbor as thyself.”  

A larger share of the blame falls on education. While some high schools and colleges have good curricula for the study of religion, too often the treatment is minimal or even non-existent. Sometimes schools are “religion-free zones,” which they should be in one sense, and not in another. 

When it comes to teaching how to be religious in a particular way, or to practice a particular faith, that is for sure not the job of public schools. However, I would argue that it is the job of public education to teach about religions, in the same way they teach about other subjects of human activity. 

But we seem to have a hard time making that distinction between teaching how and teaching about. The result is that sometimes religion is banished altogether from the classroom. The Pew study points to the problem. Only one-fourth of respondents knew that public schools are able to teach about religion, while 90% understood that prayer in public schools is forbidden. For fear of the latter, we have overlooked the former. 

What we don’t know about religion does matter. It has something to do with 25% of Americans mistakenly believing the President is a Muslim. It has something to do with a pastor planning a Koran burning. It figures in the difficulty American policymakers had in understanding the significance of Shi’a and Sunni Islam in Iraq. It has something to do with sweeping oversimplifications that declare, “Islam is a religion of peace,” or “Islam is a religion of war.” Most religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, are religions of both, depending on the time and circumstances. 

Teaching about religion as a subject of human activity and inquiry is mainly an educational task, one that primarily falls to public schools, colleges, and universities.  

That we’re not as well informed as we need to be to live in a religiously pluralistic world should not be entirely surprising. It is only in the last 40-plus years that America has become a much more religiously diverse nation, since the change of immigration policies in 1965. And contrary to the academic consensus of 50 years ago, which anticipated that religion would by now have vanished in the march of secularism, religion continues to play a significant role here and across the globe. Let’s hope the Pew Survey will encourage us to become better prepared to live in a religiously pluralistic world and to get to know our neighbors of other faiths.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.