That’s me in the corner, choosing my religion
Jamelle Bouie’s take on the recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll is the best I’ve read (the Pew servers seem to be under some strain today, so you may not make it to the poll. If not, here is a summary of the results.) Basically Atheists/Agnostics, Jews, and Mormons did the best. The dominant Christian groups faired the worst, Catholic and Protestant alike. Jamelle writes:
To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. 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. Put another way, there’s a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.
This sounds right to me. But I think it leaves out one important factor: choice. Many atheists and agnostics were not born into atheist/agnostic families. That is changing, naturally, but the vast majority of atheists and agnostics were born into some faith tradition and later made the conscious choice to leave that tradition. In essence, they’re converts. Similarly, Mormonism has much higher levels of new converts than many Christian denominations. If I recall correctly it’s the fastest growing faith in America.
Converts often actively set out to learn about a religious tradition, and usually more than one. this obviously helps in the eventual choice converts make, and is one reason why a lot of people who convert later in life are usually better educated and often more extreme than their cradle-counterparts.
I’ve gone through a number of stages in my own personal spiritual journey, and during that process I’ve learned a lot about Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism, and various Christian traditions. You won’t necessarily learn about these different faiths just by going to your own church. You have to do the legwork. And often as not, learning about different traditions will shed light on your own, give it more depth and give you more perspective and insight.
Jamelle is absolutely correct that minorities have an active interest in doing this for reasons of self-preservation, but converts do as well. This doesn’t explain the success of Jewish respondents, however, since the Jewish faith isn’t big on converts. But maybe there’s something about the competing traditions within Judaism that lends itself to this sort of knowledge. Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism are all in competition with one another to some degree, and not quite in the same way that Christian denominations are.
In any case, I took the quiz and scored a 93% and the one question I missed was stupid on my part (I read the question as ‘what day is the Jewish Sabbath’ not ‘what day does the Jewish Sabbath begin’). I did relatively well because I’ve gone through long periods of spiritual inquiry and doubt that led me to study world religions. If I’d been a die-hard Christian with little interest in other religious traditions, I would have faired much worse (though many die-hard Christians do have a great deal of interest in other faiths.)
I think the takeaway from this poll is that more religious groups should do a better job at educating their members about other faiths and cultures. I don’t think this would lead to more atheism, but even if it did – even if learning more about the gory underbelly of many of the world’s religious traditions did turn more people off – at least it would make peoples’ beliefs in general more substantive and meaningful.