September 28, 2010

Religious illiteracy and the literate irreligious

It comes as no shock to learn that on a recent quiz designed by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, atheists and agnostics are the most learned in the topic of religion. Not to say that it should be that way necessarily; only that it is; and that I find nothing particularly jarring at this news.

From Tuesday's Gray Lady:

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

Of course, knowing the relevant facts is one thing. Understanding the relevance of those facts is quite another. Still...

HuffPo's Kenneth C. Davis reckons that

... the "Good Book" fits Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "A book which people praise but never read."

Most people continue to rely upon what they hear from preachers and politicians. Often it is misquoted or taken out of context. Or they remember what they distilled from the Hollywood version of the Bible. The internet has, in many ways, just made matters worse.

The very serious problem that the Pew Forum survey underscores is that there are a lot of people out there making stark judgments about matters like religion about which they are clueless. And when it comes to Americans doing very bad things based on their beliefs, the results can be deadly.

Well, yes. But...

In May 2009, I moved to a part of the U.S. over which mainstream Christianity still holds sway and predominance. I moved from a part of the U.S. in which Christianity is largely regarded as a logical set of ethical exhortations built upon an illogical and novel form of mythology. In other words, I think I was regarded as more of a professional mythologist than anything else, whereas a collar and a title tend to mean more in the place in which I currently work and live.

In a technical sense, the move was a logical decision for me, since I'm a pastor and it's easier to build up and maintain a congregation here than it was there. But when I was "there," I was keenly aware that even if the communal aspects of religion were not regularly practiced by the majority with forthright regularity, at least the facts of religion had been turned over, examined thoroughly, and perhaps even seriously flirted with before being judged as not worthy of the time the average man or woman had to give them. (They may have even tried church but found it to be - spoiler alert! - boring. or irrelevant. or shallow.) In other words, folks knew very well what it was they were walking away from in order to go skiing, and did not necessarily abandon it in their hearts. (So be careful about that distinction before interpreting the results of any survey to claim that "a supposedly Christian nation is in fact godless.")

In that place, one's convictions and opinions about religion were a pastiche drawn from the smorgasbord of "All Religions Are Pretty Much the Same." One was free to infer from each tradition some usable portion and let the rest go, and all the scoops of this and that heaped together on the plate made a delicious meal.

The downside, of course, is that with ultimate freedom can come a lack of obligation, and I left that place sensing many congregations mere headed for a season of hand-wringing, lower attendance, financial worry, and, maybe, merger.

So then - this quiz. It presents more pause than problem for me, though it does seem to suggest the time is nigh for substantive engagement with the Christian faith and lore at a significant depth. It's time - past time, really - for genuine, unapologetic catechesis to take hold.

It's also time to finally put to rest our belief that you can be a Christian and not be expected to pay some kind of price for it. The saints on earth must be restive, never quite satisfied, always reaching for some new spiritual and intellectual territory, and working like the dickens to come to grips with what's already been given to us as heritage.

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