1 in 5 Americans is an Idiot

28religion-articleInline When news came out that 1 in 5 Americans thought that Obama was a Muslim, someone on my Twitter feed wrote "1 in 5 Americans thinks Obama is a Muslim. 1 in 5 Americans is an idiot." Evil snicker. I like to think that 1 in 5 are perfectly smart; they are just uninformed about current events.

And religion, as it turns out. The New York Times reports that a new study by the Pew Foundation finds that most Americans don't know much about religion, even their own religion. Actually, atheists know more about religion than religious folks. Here's a sample quiz.


10 thoughts on “1 in 5 Americans is an Idiot

  1. I took the NYT short version of the quiz, and scored 6 for 6. I have to say, though, that not knowing the majority religion of Indonesia, or not knowing the precise parameters of current Supreme Court doctrine on religious activity in public schools, would hardly prove that your own religious beliefs were uninformed.

  2. I think it makes a great deal of sense that very religious people will do worse on this test than non-religious people. The make up of the test included a high number of questions associated with Judeo-Christian beliefs (Moses, for example, important for both Judaism and Christianity), and then a lower number of questions about Islam, Buddhism, etc., which very religious people of a different religious might be less likely to know, given their focus on their own particular religion.

  3. Not only that, the Pew Study reported that performance on the test correlated pretty well with education levels. Perhaps the system of higher education is not such the failure its purported to be after all. (Of course, correlation does not show causation, etc.)

  4. I took the 15 or 16 question version at the Pew website and got one wrong: I knew that the answer wasn’t Billy Graham but Jonathan Edwards sounded like some actor rather than the leader of the Great Awakening.
    But then my high school had a comparative religions class which I took as a junior (in 1977). And I was raised American Christian (no church, just the myths, hymns, and holidays) with a strong Jehovah’s Witness influence (my father’s family). The JWs do a surprising amount of teaching about other religions so they can poke holes in them; the problem is they taught good enough logic that I could poke holes in their religion, too.

  5. I knew who Jonathan Edwards was, but didn’t know that the First Great Awakening was that early. Too bad they didn’t ask me to identify a quote from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God! Obviously biased toward history majors, not English majors.

  6. I couldn’t find the 32 question survey, but I took the 6 question quiz and the 16 (?) question one and got all of them right. I think any college educated person who couldn’t do that or nearly that should hand back their diploma. They’re just general knowledge tests, but of material that is not usually addressed in K-12 public school (for the obvious reasons). The only question that I recall learning about in the classroom was the Great Awakening in AP U.S. History and Martin Luther might also have made an occasional appearance. Otherwise, I picked up the answers at my mother’s knee or news stories. I took both a Bible in world literature and an Old Testament course as an undergraduate, and while both of those courses were very educational, the quizzes are barely scraping the surface of religious knowledge. The quiz questions are the intellectual equivalent of the internet ones that ask you to identify a photo of Justin Bieber. Interestingly, I don’t think that the test versions that I took had almost anything to do with the content of the New Testament, which is a bit odd and may explain the relative performance of certain groups if that reflects the longer version.
    As a rule, Evangelical Protestants are not historically minded, and do not know or care a lot about the history of their particular denomination, and in fact the trend has lately been toward totally effacing denomination (hence the trend toward church names like “Happy Valley Community Church”). There’s a counter trend among pointy-headed intellectual Evangelical Protestants (we see a lot of those in these parts), but I think that’s basically true of the rank and file. And pointy-headed intellectual Evangelicals have a tendency to pope. As Newman said, to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.

  7. “I took the 15 or 16 question version at the Pew website and got one wrong: I knew that the answer wasn’t Billy Graham but Jonathan Edwards sounded like some actor rather than the leader of the Great Awakening.”
    I knew what the First Awakening was, but not who Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney were. I did realize that the First Awakening couldn’t have involved Billy Graham.
    I agree that these are general knowledge questions for a person from the western judeo-christian tradition. I wouldn’t expect someone educated elsewhere (Asia, being the prime example) to know the answers, though.
    “As Newman said, to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.”
    but, as Laura started this thread, that’s most of our definition of an idiot (or, actually, I guess ignorant), to be unaware of the past (and the explanations for the current and valid predictions for the future, i.e. science).

  8. Some years ago, I went on a big spree of reading on the Reformation and the Counter Reformation, and one of the things I came away with was the feeling that the Reformation is pretty much a spent force in American Protestant life. Although one encounters Lutherans who are wild about Martin Luther and hard core Reformed Calvinists (see http://calvinistcorner.com/tulip for a quick summary), in general, the theological concerns that animated the Reformation (sola fide, sola scriptura, etc.) are not at all what contemporary Protestantism is about, and in fact, USA Today reported on the Pew poll “Just 19% of Protestants knew the basic tenet that salvation is through faith alone, not actions as well.” The USA Today phrasing is a bit confusing, but I’d suggest that it means that Protestants have bailed on sola fide.

  9. For Jonathan Edwards, just remember that he’s one of those guys who liked to write about how the _real_ joy of heaven was looking down on the pain of all the sinners being roasted forever in Hell, and also that God looks upon us as we would the most loathsome spider and is filled with disgust and hate. It’s not a very uplifting vision, to my mind, but I can see why some people might go in for it.

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