Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ignorant of Religion but Believing in God

9/30/2010—Turns out the national motto—“In God We Trust”—is perfect for America. For years, secularists and others committed to the separation of church and state have argued that the motto is unconstitutional because of its reference to God. But now we have evidence that the “God” of American consciousness may not be the “God” of Theism that secularists have rejected.

That evidence comes in the form of a survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that asked Americans questions about their religious knowledge. The result, as reported by Laurie Goldstein in the New York Times on Tuesday was that “Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.” (story here)

Actually, the news stories were a little harsh. Some of the questions were hard. But the answers demonstrated a wide disconnect between religious identification and religious knowledge. For example, 43% of Jews did not know that Maimonides is Jewish. One can assume that any Jew who does not know that fact is probably going through the motions of Jewish life rather than allowing Judaism to challenge and change her life.

The same thing can be said of others: “Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.” If you don’t know that, there is a sense in which you are not really a Catholic. “Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.” How likely is it that a person that ignorant of the history of his faith genuinely practices it?

Now, if religion is just a feeling, maybe the knowledge gap does not mean much. People go to church for uplift. Or think of themselves as religious for a feeling of community.

These results put the controversy over the national motto in a different light. Somewhere I read in all these stories that the survey also found that “86 percent of us believe in God or a higher power”. Now what does such a belief mean for someone who does not know much about religion? Such a person might mean a personal God, but presumably not one who intervenes in the world, since for this person, religion is “personal”. God might not even be personal, but a force of some kind. Or God might be a stand-in symbol for other values, such as the objective reality of good in the world, a kind of antidote to nihilism.

Whatever those sorts of beliefs in God might mean for the future of religion, it is hard to think of them as a threat to the separation of church and state. Critics always say to me, God means “God”. Maybe not.

7 comments:

  1. 43% of Jews did not know that Maimonides is Jewish. One can assume that any Jew who does not know that fact is probably going through the motions of Jewish life rather than allowing Judaism to challenge and change her life.

    I think such a judgement lacks charity. Tests about textbook knowledge prove nothing about one's character or the depth of one's religious commitment.

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  2. It is certainly true that textbook knowledge does not indicate a person's character. But if the question is "allowing Judaism to challenge and change" one's life, I don't know how that could be done without familiarity with the rabbinic tradition. And I don't see how that tradition can speak without reference to Maimonides.

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  3. But accusing such a believer of "going through the motions of Jewish life" sounds extreme to me.

    I don't know how to gauge one's depth of belief on such flimsy evidence.

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