Thursday, September 30, 2010

Politics and religion

It’s often said that one should never talk about religion or politics. Of course if I followed that, I’d have few blog posts and not much to talk about. Yeah, I’m that sort of person—but, then, you’ve already worked that out.

So when I heard about the Pew Forum’s “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey” I knew two things: I’d be fascinated by it and I’d have a subject for a blog post. I wasn’t disappointed on either point.

This study found what many commentators felt was Americans’ shocking lack of knowledge about religion—including their own. The main focus of reporting, however, was on the ironic result that Atheists/Agnostics knew more about religion than the religious. The study also found that Jews and Mormons knew more than Catholics and Protestants. Atheists/Agnostics did best on questions about world religion, while Mormons and white evangelical (fundamentalist) Protestants did best on questions about Christianity.

This provides some background to the larger problem of Christianity being a de facto religious test for public office in the US: If one wants to be elected, one must be a Christian, preferably a Protestant. If people really don’t know much about religion, it’s much easier for them to make intolerant, even bigoted, decisions.

In 2007, Gallup conducted a poll that asked if people would be willing to vote for their party’s presidential nominee if the party nominated a “generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an atheist” (among other categories). Only 45% would vote for an atheist, and 52% would not. Interestingly, Americans hate Atheists even more than gay people, with 55% saying they’d vote for “a homosexual” as opposed to 45% who would not.

This cuts across the political spectrum: Only 67% of Liberals would vote for an Atheist (and 81% for a homosexual), as opposed to 48% of Moderates (57% of whom would vote for a gay candidate) and a mere 29% of Conservatives (36% would vote for a gay candidate). Overall, the results are worse for both Atheists and gays than in Gallup’s 1999 poll. It’s probably worth noting that in 1937, when Gallup began asking such questions, only 60% of Americans said they’d vote for a Catholic.

The 2007 study found, as so many others have, that education is the key to tolerance and acceptance, with university educated people being more willing to support “non traditional” candidates than those with high school education or less. Not surprisingly, the Pew study also found that better-educated people knew more about religion.

This suggests that intolerance, like lack of knowledge about religion, has more to do with poor education than an innate lack of curiosity. That’s important because it means improving education right through to high school graduation could be a tool for encouraging more intellectual curiosity, and that would lead to a better-informed, more tolerant citizenry.

After decades of chronic underinvestment in education, I don’t see this situation getting better any time soon. However, change for the better is possible—if we want it.

You can take a 15-question short version of the quiz, as I did. I got 14 out of 15 (93%) correct which means, they tell me, that I did better than 97% of Americans and only 1% scored better than me. I later looked at the entire questionnaire and I believe I would’ve gotten 30/32 correct, which is the same percentage.


Roger Owen Green said...

15 out of 15.

Just sayin'

Arthur Schenck said...

This does NOT surprise me in the least.

I know someone else got my same score and who got the question on Job wrong, like me. In my case, it's because I can't remember anything being taught about him when I was a kid, which I think is kind of interesting in itself.