Thursday, October 28, 2010

Religion in America

My dad used to say that the key to being a smart person is finding it irritating as hell not to know stuff. I may have slightly over-internalized that thought as a teenager, but even all these years later I still found it irritating—and I say this more or less proudly—only to have gotten fourteen out of fifteen questions right on the Pew Center’s 2010 U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. You may have seen the results of the survey written up in the newspaper a few weeks ago. I did…and was curious what it was all about. I went on line. Even though the results had already been tabulated, a shortened quiz version of the longer survey that was used to generate those results was available on-line for the curious to try their hand at. I took the quiz. I pride myself on knowing a lot about religion. (It is my métier, after all.) And I’ve never limited my reading to books concerned solely with my own faith or my own faith community. But I still didn’t get 100% on the quiz—which, even more irritatingly, my friend Chaim, the rabbi at Beth-El in Massapequa, did get when he took the same quiz—because I didn’t know that the American preacher who was the most directly responsible for the Christian revival movement of the 1730’s and 1740’s called The Great Awakening (or, more precisely, the First Great Awakening) was Jonathan Edwards, the leading Christian theologian of the colonial era. I had certainly heard of Edwards. I even read his most famous sermon “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” somewhere along the way. (If I remember correctly, I found it way over the top and just a bit scary.) But I didn’t remember to connect his name with the Great Awakening, much less recall that he is generally credited with having been personally responsible for it. So that was it for me. No perfect score. No gold star. (Since I’m sure you’re all curious, my incorrect choice was Charles Finney, the 19th century New York City preacher who I now know was properly part of the Second Great Awakening of American evangelical Christianity. Oh well—you can’t know everything. At least I knew it wasn’t Billy Graham!)

But I write about the Pew Center’s survey not only to tell you about my personal experience taking the quiz, but to reflect with you on some of its implications. I didn’t really do that poorly. Only 1% of the public got a perfect score. According to the Pew Center’s own calculations, I did better than 97% of the people who took the quiz. But there is, to say the truth, only scant comfort in that thought, because I wish to reflect with you today neither on Jonathan Edwards’ place in our national culture nor on Charles Finney’s, but on the general state of almost shocking ignorance about religion that seems to be the rule rather than the exception to the rule in modern American culture.

The real survey, as opposed to the quiz I took, consisted of thirty-two questions on various aspects of religious life and was taken by 3,200 Americans. The results can be analyzed in dozens of ways (and readers can see most of those ways conveniently tabulated at, but no matter how you organize the data, the results are shocking in terms of what they have to say about the level of ignorance Americans display both about the religious beliefs and practices of their co-citizens and also, even more amazingly, about their own religions. It is, after all, one thing to note that fewer than half of all American know that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist or that only slightly more than a quarter of Americans know that the religion of the vast majority of the citizens of Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim country—is Islam, and quite another to note, as the Pew survey revealed, that more than half of America’s Protestants failed to recognize Martin Luther as the individual whose writings and teachings inspired the Protestant Reformation or that more than four out of ten Catholics do not appear to know that their own church teaches that the wine and bread used in the Communion ceremony actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus, a mystical idea called transubstantiation which is at the very heart of Catholic theology.

Naturally, I was most interested in what the Pew survey had to say about what Americans, and specifically Jewish Americans, know about Judaism and Jewish culture. Here too it is not that simple to know how to spin the data. That fewer than half of the respondents knew that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening does not surprise me especially. Nor do I find it particularly surprising to learn that fewer than one in ten Americans knows that Maimonides was Jewish. (Also not that surprising, but far more depressing, is the discovery that two out of five Jewish Americans were unable to recognize as one of our own the man who could entirely reasonably be acclaimed as the greatest rabbinic mind of the last millennium. But, for the record, it is also worth noting that the question about Maimonides was the question on the survey that the least number of respondents answered correctly.) Still, Jews are better educated about religion than most: 73% of Jewish respondents got more than half the answers right, a percentage exceeded only by Mormons (74%) and self-proclaimed atheists/agnostics (82%). And then there is the fact that a full 94% of Jewish Americans knew on which day of the week Shabbat begins, which detail, as noted above, would come as news to more than half our nations’ citizens. At least that!

Also of interest is what the Pew survey discovered about what Americans know of the role of religion in public education. That religion-specific prayer is forbidden in public schools appears to be very well known almost to all. (Almost 90% of those polled knew this to be so.) But that it is specifically not forbidden to teach classes in comparative religion or to read passages from the Bible in a class on world literature or in the context of some other class not intended as religious instruction was far less well known: fewer than a quarter of American knew that it is not forbidden to teach biblical texts in public schools and only a third were aware that public schools are allowed to offer courses in comparative religion. Jews did far better than the average in both areas of knowledge, as we generally did in questions involving knowledge of other people’s religions. Indeed, Jews appeared to be far more knowledgeable than any other faith group when it came to identifying central symbols or rituals of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. And Jews did even better than the national average of Christian respondents when it came to answering questions about Christianity! (More Jews than Christians, for example, knew that Mother Teresa was a Catholic.) So we seem to know a lot about other people’s religions, even if we occasionally forget some fairly important details about our own.

What I saw coming through over and over in the Pew data is the strange image of a nation of people who are deeply devoted to religion without being all that interested in the details, not the details of other people’s faiths but also not the details of their own belief systems. And the only way I can think of reasonably to process that thought is to suppose that it is the idea of religious faith itself, and the pleasure of belonging to a faith group, that Americans find appealing…and that they find that appeal not really to extend beyond the satisfaction of communal affiliation to the extent actually of feeling obliged to master the details of their chosen faith’s theological details or ritual rules, let alone of feeling some concomitant obligation to master the ins and outs of religions they themselves have not embraced. We see that in our house as well, of course, in the phenomenon of people who feel supremely comfortable with their Jewishness but far less drawn to Judaism itself. (The old joke you all know, the one that ends “No, Rabbi, what we want is just for you to speak about Judaism,” isn’t actually all that funny, predicated as it is on the supposition that the concept of there being such a thing as Judaism is far more appealing to shul-goers, or at least to the shul-goers in the joke, than any of its actual constituent beliefs or rituals.) And, indeed, there are versions of Judaism out there that formally reject intellectual probity in favor of the kind of feel-good Jewishness that, their proponents hope, will draw Jewish people without simultaneously chasing them off with a barrage of unwanted details.

With respect to that aspect of modern Jewish life, the solution is simply to realize that the choice itself is bogus, that there is no inherent reason to have to choose between a version of Judaism that is honest and intellectually sound and one that is spiritually attractive. I believe—and I have devoted my entire career to the propagation of this thought in one way or another—that it is entirely possible to embrace a kind of Judaism that is challenging intellectually, scrupulously honest, devoid of self-serving chicanery…and also deeply emotionally satisfying. In a real sense, all my writing and preaching, and all my teaching over the last three decades, has built around the desire to demonstrate the reasonableness of that single thought.

In reading the Pew Center report, I was buoyed slightly by realizing that the choice so many in the Jewish world seem to feel obliged to make between embracing the warmth of communal fellowship and actually feeling called upon to master the details of a complicated ancient faith has its parallel in other religious spheres and among other American faith groups. Clearly, there are others in parallel boats on the same stormy sea we ourselves are attempting to navigate. Is that good news? Maybe not in the long run…but surely there’s some comfort to be had in knowing that we are not alone, and that the huge challenges we face are also faced by other groups! At least that!

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