Thursday, September 30, 2010

Religious Literacy

Lookee here! It hasn't been six months, only two! I told you I'd write more often. Who knows? Maybe there will even be another before we see the end of 2010!

I haven't gotten over the hurt written about in the previous post. Not sure I ever will. But I'm working on forgiving. Secret Agent Woman left a very true comment after my last post. Honestly, I don't think I'm ready forgive one of the members of the offending party. The other member (party of 2, you see) apologized and asked for my forgiveness up front, and I granted it. In the meantime, I'm following my therapist's advice and trying to reach out to person 1. I've deduced from the little response received, and prior conversations, that that person is relatively insecure. Which is sad. And which may be why person 1 cornered person 2 into deliberately hurting me. So, now I'm feeling sorry for Offending Person 1, and hoping that I can move to forgiving him/her through pity.

Besides, if so many in South Africa can forgive their vicious, violent oppressors (and yes, I know that's debatable en masse) then I can learn to forgive an insecure, immature offender who probably has no idea how much his/her action hurts me and those around him/her. That's all I'll write on that.

Onto more interesting things. (And I apologize for the lengthy vanity trip above.) This week, a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life was floating around on Facebook. It looked at elementary religious literacy of Americans, and their general knowledge of public expressions and public religious figures. I'll be honest, I didn't read the full story; I jumped straight to the 15-question quiz to see how I compared to most Americans. The average American falls around 50%; I got 100%. I took the full 32 question survey, and only missed one. (To the Learnin' Mobile, PK!) The thrust of the study, however, was that atheists and agnostics scored higher on the quiz, on average than those who self-identified any faith.

Online, my atheist friends - who also took the quiz - crowed a little bit (okay, so did I) and one of my clergy friends used it as a call for the church to do a better job with religious education. Perhaps not surprisingly, when I glanced at the results question for question in the study, most of the wrong answers on content were delivered by people outside their own religion. Atheists didn't know who Job was, for example, and Christian Evangelicals weren't sure what Ramadan was, etc. Those not identifying as anything - not atheist, not believers, not agnostics - seemed to do as well as anyone else, though again, weak on the content questions.

I don't really want to explore here what it means that there was a knowledge gap between non-believers and belivers. But it's worth noting that not all the questions were about Bible stories or Christian dogma, but about elementary aspects of many religions - including mythology and doctrine - as well as religious history in America and public expressions of religion. What I find interesting is that few people, regardless of how they identified, did well with the questions about religious history or public expression. Specifically, school prayer, Bible reading in school and spot the preacher from the First Great Awakening. Everyone basically got the last one wrong. I can understand why someone may get a doctrine question wrong in someone else's religion (heck, even in their own), but why the generic religion-in-society questions?

I suspect we don't really know how to talk about religion, religious heritage or items of faith or spiritual nourishment and exercise in our society. It makes us uneasy. What are generally regarded as the two taboo topics of conversation whenever you meet someone or are at a party? Religion and politics. Is there any wonder than that we're culturally ignorant? It's like religion (maybe politics, too) is the sex of the modern age. Because it's so personal, it's volatile and we don't discuss it. Or when we do, we just sneer at each other and reduce the other to withering stereotypes.

Despite this, I'm very grateful to the education I received growing up. Not just my religious education about my own religion's sacred stories and doctrine. But that my father and schoolteachers taught us about religious influence in public life.

For instance, when I was in high school, English Lit classes in Texas followed a certain path: 9th grade was focused on English (as in British) lit; 10th grade was general lit with heavier emphasis on poetry; 11th grade focused on American literary genres and movements - with heavier emphasis on the novel, I think; 12th grade ... I don't remember. (Who remembers their senior year?) In 11th grade, we covered the major movements from early colonial days up through WW2, I think. Maybe just the Harlem Renaissance. Included among those early colony movements were the essay, pamphlets and ... the sermon. I remember we learned about Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. We read "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," not as prosetylization, but as an artifact of the period. We discussed how that sermon influenced the general thought of the day. Just like we read "Thanatopsis" and discussed the spiritualism trend in literature during the period. Just like we read Twain and discussed how his writing affected the public. Just because we were being exposed to writings of a religious nature, didn't mean that we were being "preached to."

Likewise, in 10th grade world history class, we had a section about world religions. I don't remember how long we spent on the world's 5 most popular religions, but I do remember that we learned about the Vedas, the Bagavad Ghita and different big movements in Buddhism. For the quiz about the world religion segment, we had to list 5 of the 10 commandments, 4 of the 8 noble truths, maybe all 5 tenets of Islam, or maybe 3 (I can't recall). I think we had to list some of the books of the Torah, too. That sounds familiar. And I don't remember what core principles we were supposed to know about Christianity and Hinduism. Maybe the resurrection for Christianity and the cycle of life and death for Hinduism? Sure. We'll say that. None of this was delivered with any hint of favoritism or bias, even though I'd put money on it that every one of the students in the classroom, and the teacher too, were either Christian in practice or personal history. I don't know how that compares to the general American public high school education. However, my husband, who attended a much larger, much wealthier school that produces plenty of white collar, college-bound grads (as opposed to my school which produces a lot of blue collar workers and straight-to-military), doesn't recall any such exposure in school.

Because of Dad's great admiration for the First Amendment as well as for free expression of religion, I got what I think is a clearer picture of religious freedom rights in America. I was grateful that teacher-led school prayer had been struck down, but not fearful of my teacher ever uttering the word "god" in any context other than a swear word.

Theologian Elaine Pagels believes we should teach religion in America's public schools. Not as proselytization, but as academic study. She may be right. We don't do it now, and how has it helped us? So many Americans are ignorant about other religions. (Hell, their own, as well.) I thank God and my forebears for our secular government; the separation of church and state is probably my favorite amendment. But would talking about religion violate the establishment clause? I don't know that teaching religion would ever occur in the U.S. There is a lot of mistrust that floats around. Who decides on how each religion is represented?

I guess my big question is this: Who does it benefit for us to be ignorant of others' religions, our own religions and the influence of those religions? The current tsunami of Islamophobia clearly benefits no one. It weakens our country in so many ways. The apparently misguided notion that a public school teacher is legally disallowed to read from the Bible as a piece of literature serves to strengthen those who believe that Christianity is under attack. If you don't know Martin Luther from Martin Luther King, then you miss massive catalysts for revolution in western history.

Religion matters. Just like sex matters. If we can learn to talk more openly about sex, while still respecting the personal importance it carries, why can't we learn to do the same about religious matters?


Virginia Gal said...

Hey you are blogging again! Yay!

I had given up hope, thought you had abandoned this site : )

I took the 15 question quiz and scored 100%, yay!

Word Imp said...

Hi, just wanted to let you know that the Word Imp has returned!

Molly Malone said...

Hi WordImp! I'll stop by your site more often.

And I know SecretAgentWoman left a comment here, but I can't find it and I may have deleted it. My sincere apologies. As always, I thought your comment was thoughtful, though. I'll try to be better about visiting my blog (and yours) in the future!