Acton Institute Powerblog

Is Knowledge Of Religion Important To Culture?

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We Americans are rather ignorant about religion. We claim to be a religious folk, but when it comes to hard-core knowledge, we don’t do well. The Pew Forum put together a baseline quiz of religious knowledge – a mere 32 multiple choice questions – and on average, Americans only got about half of them right. A few sample questions (without the multiple choice answers):

  • Which Bible figure is most closely associated with leading the exodus from Egypt?
  • What is Ramadan?
  • In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures?
  • What was Joseph Smith’s religion?

Who scored best? Atheists and agnostics. Yeah.

In “Religion for $1,000, Alex,” Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times says that most Americans believe the Bible holds important information about how to live one’s life, but only about 1/3 of them know basic biblical information (such as Jesus being the one who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.)

The question is, does this matter? Do we need to be religiously-literate in order to be culturally-literate? I imagine that it makes some things easier, such as knowing that you don’t bring a bottle of wine when invited to dinner at your devout Muslim co-worker’s home. Certainly, it helps prevent bigotry, when a Christian is well-informed that his beliefs are rooted in the Jewish faith. But there’s more. Here is Kristof:

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn’t matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America.

How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?

I have a confession: I am a religion geek. With two world religion degrees under my proverbial belt, I’ll read anything that has to do with religion. I can (usually!) clear any religion category on “Jeopardy” or answer any religious Trivial Pursuit question. Like a well-rounded but ardent Star Wars fan, I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Unlike Star Wars, however, religious knowledge informs so much of what we know about the world: history, wars, literature, philosophy and the day-to-day lives of our neighbors, friends and co-workers. While we do not need to know that Luke and Leia are brother and sister, we do need to know about religion – both American and world – in order to be culturally literate. In a nation founded on religious liberty, we ought to know why religious liberty is important, and the only way to do that is know about religion.

One question, however, is how to do this? Can we teach religious knowledge in public schools in an unbiased manner? Should a basic world religions class be part of every undergraduate curriculum? Religion in America is too far-flung, too deep, too broad to be learned via osmosis. And it’s far too important to be left to amateurs.

We Americans do not all need Ph.D.s in religion in order to deepen our knowledge. But we should all be able to confidently say, “Religion for $1,000, Alex.” It’s at least that important.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • Michael

    “Can we teach religious knowledge in public schools in an unbiased manner?” You got it, that’s the question.

    This is inherently a political question. You are calling for fairness . . . in politics . . . when the fundamental world view of future voters is at stake? Politicians have a captive audience where school children are involved. Is it even conceivable for politicians to be ‘hands off’ in such a situation? Isn’t this even more a difficult proposition when conservatives seem to be more fruitful than their idealogical opponents? After all, politics is a winner take all game. And then what of the federal input on this political issue? Are we really willing to open ourselves to that even more than we already have?

    In his very interesting 1992 book, “Unholy Ghost”, about anti-catholicism in the American Experience, Roman Catholic Bishop Mark J. Hurley says this about a previous period in US history where there were, nonetheless, political tensions between dominant Protestants and the newly arrived Catholics:

    “Since the public schools were anything but ‘nonsectarian,’ rather under the control of Protestants and particularly of Protestant ministers, Catholics found themselves in the nineteenth century, fighting Protestantism in the public schools and in effect contributing to their secularization.”

    And then we have the current conflict between the science behind the “Origin of the Species.” When challenged with inconvenient facts or facts which don’t fit the theory of “undirected evolution” or even by the lack of evidence for some fundamental leaps of the “undirected natural selection” argument, Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, Inc. usually responds something like this:

    “Facts are a dime a dozen, what is important is the theory.”

    In education, politics is everything. You will never have unbiased education when there is a fight for the hearts and minds of the students involved. It can’t and it won’t happen.