Sunday, October 10, 2010

What we know, and what we "think" we know?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 10 October 2010

Are Jeopardy contestants more likely to be atheists? In the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life’s recent survey on U.S. Religious Knowledge (September 28, 2010 -- atheists score the highest. They score the highest on “religious” knowledge but also, religion’s role in public life, and nonreligious knowledge (9 questions spanning politics, science, history and literature).

Asking “knowledge” questions is hard to do in a survey like this. Pew did it by asking respondents to think of the questions like a game show. I’ve asked questions about people’s knowledge about public policies and the criminal justice system. The results are usually disappointing (people don’t know much) and my sense is that people don’t like answering them.

The newsworthiness of these findings focuses on the irony that atheists would know more about religion than the religious. (They don’t know more about Christianity than white evangelicals and Mormons, but more than other groups.) As a sociologist, I’m not surprised by the results. Atheists could be considered to be one of the lowest status groups in society. Very few Americans will admit to much doubt about the existence of God or a higher spirit (31 percent in this survey admitted to some uncertainty but only six percent expressed a disbelief in God). Generally, lower status groups know more about the ways of higher status groups than higher status groups know about the ways of lower status groups. Christians scored, on average, lower than did Jews, Mormons (there are important theological distinctions) and atheists on questions about the Bible and Christianity, world religions, and the role of religion in public life. In a society dominated by Christianity, minority religious views have to be defended and defending one’s position sharpens one’s knowledge about both sides. Christians, despite some conservative hyperbole, don’t really have to defend their religious views the way minority religious adherents do.

Other than a sophisticated game of trivia, I’m not sure what knowing or not knowing the answers to these questions really means. Frankly, I think many of the questions are pretty arcane and irrelevant to why people engage in religious behavior. Is it more important for Christian salvation to know who Jesus is or where he was born? If Catholics don’t know what “transubstantiation” is, does that mean they are headed to hell? If a believer doesn’t know that the “golden rule” is not one of the 10 Commandments, does St. Peter cite these results and bar those who are so mistaken from the pearly gates? I think this kind of knowledge is important to scholars and intellectuals (and to wannabe Jeopardy contestants) but not that important to folks who are looking for answers to questions like “what happens to me after I die” or “why am I here?”

If we spend more time talking and thinking about what is important to us, that is, “learning,” then the Pew survey provides insights into these results. The Pew survey asked respondents how often they spoke to family and friends about science, history, politics or other current events, and religion. One reason why so many (72 percent) knew the Democrats control the House of Representatives is because 51 percent indicated talking with friends and family about politics and current events (does that include what happened last night on “Dancing with the Stars,” “American Idol,” and Jacob Lacey’s dropped interception that would have won the game for the Colts?). Forty-four percent indicated frequent discussions about religion (40 percent attend religious services once or more per week and 37 percent indicate reading scripture at least once a week outside of religious services). Hence, 46 percent knew who Martin Luther was. Only 35 percent frequently discuss history and just 25 percent frequently discuss science. Fifty-two percent expressed belief in evolution and 40 percent indicated that “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” about the same number who indicated a fundamentalist belief in the Bible (35 percent).

The point is that we “know” about things that are important to us because we talk about and do those things. I wish Pew had included a pop culture component.

Time for Final Jeopardy. The category is Pew Forum Religious Study. The answer is 68 percent. If you answered “What proportion of the Pew sample indicated being dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country right now” you are correct. Too bad Pew didn’t break down satisfaction with the way things are going by knowledge.

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