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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2010

Holy ignorance

The next time an American says something ignorant about this being a Christian nation or President Obama being “a Muslim,” consider the source.

According to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, most Americans don't know what they're talking about when it comes to their faith or the religion of others.

The survey says the most religiously informed group consists of atheists and agnostics, presumably because they make an effort to research the religions they're rejecting. The nonbelievers are followed by Jews and Mormons as the most knowledgeable groups on religion, based on the Pew Forum's quiz.

White evangelical Protestants are fourth, followed by white Catholics and white mainline Protestants. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics trail “nothing in particular” at the bottom of the scoring.

The test consists of 32 questions about the doctrines, founders, history, traditions, and practices of several major religions, including their own spiritual path.

Although 82 percent of those polled knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic, only 45 percent could name the four gospels. Forty-seven percent correctly identified the Dalai Lama as Buddhist, but only 27 percent knew that Indonesia is a Muslim country. A mere 8 percent correctly identified the medieval theologian Maimonides as Jewish.

The United States is the most self-consciously religious nation in the West. But the Pew survey offers more evidence that religious literacy among average citizens is abysmal.

The poor state of religious knowledge puts the fiery debates over Qur'an burnings and the Ground Zero mosque into perspective. Americans get passionate about religious controversies without knowing many facts.

A high percentage of Americans apparently are content to be culturally religious without investing a lot of time thinking deeply about their faith or anyone else's. Although there's a place for knowledge of the heart in religion, shouldn't the head be involved as well?

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