By Gene Edward Veith
Do atheists know more about religion than religious people do? That was the conclusion of recent news reports on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which released the survey results Sept. 28. Though the media conclusions are somewhat misleading, the survey raises issues that Christians need to face up to.
It is true that atheists and agnostics, considered together, scored highest among those who took the survey, followed by Jews and then Mormons. White evangelicals came in fourth place, followed by white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, “nothing in particular,” black Protestants, and Hispanic Catholics.
Of the 32 questions, only 12 dealt with the Bible and Christianity. The others asked about world religions and legal issues about church and state. It should not be surprising that people are poorly informed about religions they do not believe in. Or that atheists have surveyed a number of religions before deciding that they do not believe in any of them.
The survey questions asked about religion, concentrating mainly on historical figures and background facts. Only two questions, as we will discuss, dealt with actual theological understanding.
The seven questions about the Bible asked subjects to identify the first book of the Bible, the four Gospels, where Jesus was born, if the Golden Rule is one of the Ten Commandments and to identify Job, Moses, and Abraham.
The five questions about the “Elements of Christianity” asked what Catholics believe about Communion, what group believes that salvation is through faith alone, the religion of Mother Teresa, who started the Reformation and who preached during the First Great Awakening.
Again, these are mostly informational rather than catechetical questions. They are simple, but they are not all critically important to the state of one’s soul.
Of these 12 questions on the Bible and Christianity, Mormons got the best score, answering correctly on the average 7.9 of the questions. White Evangelicals correctly answered 7.3. Then came atheists/agnostics, 6.7, and Jews, 6.3. Black Protestants and white Catholics tied at 5.9. Bringing up the rear are white mainline Protestants (5.8), “nothing in particular” (4.9), and Hispanic Catholics (4.2).
Where do Lutherans come in? The Pew Forum classifies Missouri Synod Lutherans as “Evangelicals,” presumably for believing in the inerrancy of Scripture, while members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are classified as “mainline Protestants.” (Presumably, African-American Lutherans would all be numbered as “black Protestants.”)
Lutherans might feel gratified that Martin Luther is fairly well known. Of all those surveyed, 46 percent know that he inspired the Reformation. (Only 11 percent know about Jonathan Edwards, the great American Calvinist evangelist.) Of white Evangelicals, 52 percent know what Luther did, as do 47 percent of white Catholics. Only 34 percent of Hispanic Catholics, though, know who he is. He is well-known among atheists, though, with 68 percent identifying him. He is best known among Jews, at 70 percent, though that may not be a good thing, given Luther’s reputation for his anti-Jewish polemics.
It is regrettable when people are ignorant about other people’s religion. But it is even worse when they are ignorant about their own religion. Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine of Communion become the Body and Blood of Christ. Only 40 percent of Americans realize that. But only 55 percent of Roman Catholics are aware that this is what their church teaches, meaning that 45 percent do not!
But the most disturbing news from the Religious Knowledge Survey is how few Christians are aware that Protestants believe that salvation is through faith alone. Only 16 percent of the general public is aware of that teaching, which is the same percentage (16 percent) of Christians who are aware of that teaching! Only 9 percent of Catholics realize that Protestants believe that.
It gets worse. Among Protestants, only 19 percent were aware that Protestants believe that salvation is through faith alone. That includes 14 percent of the mainliners and 9 percent of black Protestants. Among Evangelicals, whose name suggests an emphasis on the Gospel, only 28 percent know that Protestants believe in salvation through faith alone, which means that 72 percent do not.
Notice, however, that the survey does not ask if people believe that salvation is through faith alone, just whether people know this is a distinctive teaching of Protestantism. One might conclude from the data that salvation through faith alone is not a distinctive teaching of Protestantism any longer, since so few Protestants say that it is. Perhaps Lutherans are among the few Christians who believe in this anymore.
It would have been more helpful if the survey asked more pointed theological questions. What percentage of people from each religious category is aware that Christians believe that Jesus Christ is God incarnate? What percentage can name the Persons of the Trinity? What percentage knows about Christ’s atonement on the cross for the sins of the world?
It would also be helpful to know what percentage not only has religious knowledge but believes in that knowledge. How many in each category believes in the deity of Christ? Or that salvation is by faith in Him?
As it is, this Religious Knowledge Survey does not give us much detail. But it does underscore the reality of biblical and theological illiteracy in America today, even among Christians. This, in turn, underscores for the church the necessity of both evangelism (even of those who consider themselves Christians) and catechesis (not just of children, but of adults).
Dr. Gene Edward Veith serves as provost at Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, Va., and is the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Ind. He is the author of God at Work: Your Christian Vocation in All of Life.
Updated Nov. 1, 2010