I was fascinated by the findings of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life from May 19 through June 6, 2010. It polled a nationwide sample of 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, using both landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish. In sociological circles, that is a large sample.
Here’s the first sentence of the report: “Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.”
In fact, Catholics did not do well. Of the 32 questions asked, atheists and agnostics answered an average of 20.9 correctly, while Catholics scored an average of only 16. We were slightly behind white Evangelical Protestants and slightly ahead of mainstream Protestants. But Jews and Mormons outscored either Catholics or Protestants with 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively.
And on world religions, atheists and agnostics continue to display the greatest knowledge.
And when it comes to the one Catholic teaching that was queried, about 40% of Catholics did not know that the official teaching is that the bread and wine become (as opposed to symbolize) the body and blood of Christ.
All this suggests that religious education – Catholic and otherwise – is lagging far behind. And unfortunately, such lack of knowledge can too easily become the seedbed for religious bigotry. We need courses in public and parochial schools about religion (which is not the same thing as religious indoctrination) – all religions.