A study released by the Pew Foundation reveals something many may find surprising: the best informed citizens on religion tend to be those who do not believe. There are obviously exceptions to this trend, but for those of us who teach religion it certainly rings true. Over nearly the past two decades, I have repeatedly encountered students brimming with religious zeal, but who know very little about what they’re so excited about. The emotional charge is real enough, but few Americans know in any detail what their religion actually teaches. Some of us didn’t need the Pew report to tell us this – we have known this all along.
One of the flip assumptions that must fall by the wayside here is that non-believers don’t know what they’re missing. In fact, it seems, many of them consciously reject what they are brought up believing. This also fails to surprise those who spend much time with religious studies. Religions are developed in defined culturally and chronologically bound circumstances. The longer it takes the parousia to occur, the more human knowledge mitigates against it. In a pre-scientific first century many ideas held a currency that no longer bears weight in theological commerce. Those who study it closely realize this.
As political parties gear up for midterm elections and various contenders are sending out their feelers for the highest office (secular, in this country), they know something the electorate does not. Religion, poorly understood, is perhaps the greatest motivator known to the politically ambitious. People believe – and feel it strongly – but what exactly it is they believe, they are not sure. Anyone who has read the Bible soberly, on its own terms, without ecclesiastical lenses firmly in place, walks away with more questions than answers. Religious belief relies on answers, often at the expense of knowledge. So it is that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has discovered something that those of us who daily live with religion had already surmised from the evidence right before our eyes.
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