Religious Belief Does Not Equate to Religious Knowledge

October 8, 2010 News

Do you know what religion Maimonides belonged to or when the Jewish Sabbath begins? Could you explain what an agnostic believes? The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, a project of the Pew Research Center, asked these questions and 29 others like them in a survey whose findings were published Sept. 28. The 32 questions focused on various world religions, religion in public life, and famous religious figures.

The researchers from the Pew Forum, the questionnaire “intended to be representative of a body of important knowledge about religion; not meant to be a list of the most essential facts.”

The average score for those polled was 50 percent. Even after controls for factors like age, education, and race, the highest scores came from atheists and agnostics with an average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole averaged 16 correct answers and Catholics as a whole, 14.7 correct answers. Broader beliefs about God and the importance of religion also showed a correlation to religious knowledge; people who say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit performed comparatively well on the poll, scoring an average of 18.7 questions right. Those who believe in God got significantly fewer questions right with an average of 15.6 correct answers.

Even greater than score differences based on religious beliefs were differences based on education. People with higher levels of education tended to be more knowledgeable about religion. College graduates got an average of 20.6 out of 32 religious knowledge questions right, while people with only a high school diploma scored an average of 13.7 correct.

However, all groups scored poorly on questions regarding religion in public life. While 89% of those polled knew that public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, less than 25 percent knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” Curious as to how Rollins students would compare, I headed out on Oct. 2 to conduct my own poll. I chose 10 questions from the survey constructed by the Pew Forum and questioned approximately 50 students.

Students had the highest accuracy when it came to identifying the Dalai Lama’s religion – Buddhism – and the lowest when asked to define what an agnostic is – someone who does not deny the existence of a higher power, but claims that it is impossible to know whether there is a God. It is not possible to compare the national averages based on religious affiliation due to a difference in sample size. It is interesting to note, however, that the only perfect score came from someone who did not claim a particular religion and said that religion was not at all important in the student’s life.

Rollins scored better than the national average, but not by much. Granted, there was quite a bit of guessing; however, students did not seem embarrassed to say that they just did not know an answer.

Like the rest of America, students at Rollins are not as knowledgeable about popular world religions as they could be. However, students are on the best track towards becoming more knowledgeable simply by furthering their education.

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