Wednesday, September 29, 2010

American piety: Blissful ignorance?

Yesterday's release of the study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life confirmed what you may have suspected: Americans may be a religious people, but we sure don't know an awful lot about religion--not even our own. (See how you fare on this half-sized survey.) And the atheists and agnostics in our society are the most religiously literate people of all!
One thing that is especially disheartening is that only about half of the Catholics surveyed got the question about the Eucharist:
"About half of those polled (52%) say, incorrectly, that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. Just four-in-ten people correctly answer that, according to the Catholic Church, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. Even many Catholics are unaware of their church’s teaching on this topic; while 55% of Catholics get the question right, more than four-in-ten Catholics (41%) say the church teaches that the bread and wine are symbols of Christ’s body and blood, and 3% say they do not know what the church’s teaching is. Still, Catholics perform better on this question than does any other religious group."

Yes, the whole sacramental system is based on symbols and signs, and that includes the Eucharist. (If the "sign" is compromised, the Real Presence is lost.) But the survey question did not allow for theological nuancing: it was an either/or: According to Catholic Church teaching, (a) the Eucharist is a symbol or (b) the Eucharist really becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus. You can't really play the nuance game with that. As Flannery O'Connor said, "If it's just a symbol, to hell with it!"

People with a "high level of religious commitment" got, on average, only one more question right than the average respondent. And the more educated the person, the higher the score.  This has some atheists and agnostics crowing contentedly that the survey shows that smart, educated people do not believe the silly or moralistic tales that satisfy lesser minds. But the survey was not about faith: it was about religious awareness--religious "literacy" in the overall sense. And overall, Americans are embarrassingly ignorant. 3%, (that is, six of the 3,000+ participants) couldn't get a single answer right. 49%, asked a "general knowledge" question (to establish a baseline), were unable to name the current Vice-President of the United States.
As I look over the survey questions and results, it strikes me that this would provide the basis for a wonderful adult education program on basic religious knowledge. I think I see my next project coming together!


Anonymous said...

Ya think That project could begin in your own backyard?

Sr Anne said...


harv681 said...

13 of 15 for me!

Taquoriaan said...

Does the fact that I scored 15/15 mean that I'm more clever than most Agnosts/Atheists?

On the serious note: I know from experience that knowing a lot with your head about the faith doesn't make a better person. Faith has to be lived.