Oh, ye of little religious knowledge

By Meghan Murphy-Gill| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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"Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than Roman Catholics and other Christians." That's how most coverage of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey on religious knowledge among Americans begins. Some point out that Mormons and Jews also scored better on this survey. It's an interesting finding, not altogether surprising, but am I only the one who thinks this lead smacks of just a smidgen of smugness? Can't you just hear the scoffing when religion writers and bloggers breathlessly point out that more than half of Protestants don't even know that Martin Luther was the man who started the Protestant Reformation?!

A lack of religious "literacy" is often lamented by those who, well, know a lot about religion. As if on cue, I received a press release this morning from a director of a center for religious literacy warning of the dangers of not knowing enough about other faiths, naming the incident with the planned Quran burning last month as an example. "The more you know about religion, the less likely you will be swayed by misinformation, and right now many people are being swayed," this woman said. "We are in an era in which conflict about religion in the public sphere is at an extreme level."

It is important to learn about religion, both our own and others', especially for avoiding conflict and having dialogue in a pluralist world where we are increasingly bumping into others with different faiths. But the alarm and incredulity over this survey's results reflect our society's post-Enlightenment affliction: We tend to believe that intellectual knowledge alone is power, that what we know is who we are, and so the more we know, the better off we are.

Christians who've scored low on this survey are accused of having "blind faith." But a faith that seeks and finds understanding isn't necessarily one that has stored up little factoids and can answer religious trivia. Belonging to a religion is so much more than knowing answers and I'm not certain there is such a thing as "blind faith." People know religious truths in more ways than intellectual and most people I know have faith for reasons that have nothing to do with what they know about religion.

An example: I came across a quote by Frederick Buechner some years ago: "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Reading this was like hearing the clang of a large bell: It was clear and clarifying, something I knew instinctively. I shared it with my academic advisor, who immediately said, "That's Ignatian spirituality." I knew next to nothing of the Jesuits and even less of Ignatius of Loyola. Later, after studying theology for a few years, I could pin-point exactly where to find this spirituality explored in philosophical and theological terms in the theology of Karl Rahner, one of the most important and influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. I'm likely to do well on a 15-question quiz on this topic, but it doesn't change the depth of meaning that the idea continues to have for me.

I took the Pew Forum quiz and scored in the top 1 percent of the population (OK, I'll brag a little: I answered every question correctly), but I'll guarantee that some lower-scoring quiz-takers have something to teach me about being a better Catholic.