New Religious Knowledge Survey: Interfaith Perspective

Atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons scored higher on a survey of religious knowledge than Protestants or Catholics did, according to a report released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The survey emphasized religious history and the practice of the major world religions. So what does this survey reveal to me as someone with an interfaith identity, living in an interfaith family?

One of my primary goals in choosing an interfaith education for my children was to make sure they were not ignorant about either of the religions in their family tree. So, I am pleased to report that my sixteen-year-old daughter took the 15-question online version of the Pew survey, and, as she put it, she “beasted it.” In adult-speak, that means she got 14 out of 15 questions right. For this success, I credit our interfaith Sunday School, in which we spend an entire year on the history and evolution of the different Jewish and Christian movements and denominations. My daughter points out that she also picked up some of the answers from her AP US History class, and from the dinner-table conversations in our household, where we are somewhat obsessed with comparative religion. But I like to think that we have inspired her, in our interfaith religious education program, to soak up religious knowledge.

Most interfaith couples cite education as the most important reason they made the controversial decision to throw in their lot with a community of other interfaith families, rather than (or in addition to) joining a synagogue or church. To see my data on why these families chose interfaith education, you’ll have to wait for my book. The Pew survey, of course, did not create a category for respondents who self-identified as “Interfaith” or “Jewish/Christian.” As always, those with an interfaith identity were forced to check one box. The choices, beyond Jewish, Christian, and Atheist/Agnostic, included the tone-deaf and dismissive “Nothing in Particular.”

If I had been called by the pollsters and asked to pick one religious identity, I would not have labeled my passion for religious history and ideas and spiritual practice as “Nothing in Particular.” I guess I would have chosen Jewish, though many Jews would argue with my right to that label, and I myself feel reduced and misrepresented by it.

Why did Jews do so well on the survey? I got to thinking about how Jews are a minority in our Christian culture, but also about how the majority of Jews now have Christians in their extended families, with 80% intermarrying in some cities. I think this helps to explain why Jews might be more knowledgeable about other religions, and about Christianity in particular. Many of the folks who chose “Jewish” as their label in this survey are married to Christians, have a Christian parent, might even have chosen both Judaism and Christianity if the pollsters had let them. So it is not surprising, in fact it is statistically obvious to me, that they might be able to answer a question about Martin Luther. On the other hand, the vast majority of Christians are not from interfaith families, and thus have no intimate acquaintance with which to answer a question about Maimonides.

The “check one box” problem haunts this survey in yet another way. Did Jewish atheists check Jewish, or atheist as their identity box? How many of the Jews are also atheists? At High Holy Days this year, a friend who went to shul did his own informal survey, making a game of trying to find a Jew who would whole-heartedly claim belief in God. Reader, he did not find even one. And this was among Jews who went to services. The high proportion of atheists among practicing Jews, Jews who go to synagogue and recite prayers, is well-known among fellow Jews, but still confounding to Christians. I believe it may well have confounded some of the results in this survey.

Our community of interfaith families includes a large proportion of atheists and agnostics (to find out the percentage, you’ll have to wait for my book). It may seem counterintuitive for Atheists to take interest in, or want their children to learn about, world religions. One cynical theory (already in the blogosphere) to explain the exceptional religious knowledge of atheists is that reading holy books like the Bible creates atheists. However, the atheists who join our interfaith community and put their children in our interfaith Sunday School want their children to study religion. In fact, they want their children to have double the information, to understand both family religions, as an important part of cultural literacy, despite their atheism.

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7 Comments on “New Religious Knowledge Survey: Interfaith Perspective”

  1. Liza Says:

    Your Jewish cousin, Bill always says that he does what the God he doesnt believe in expects of him.

  2. Mandy Katz Says:

    This test speaks to the generally woeful state of “Sunday school” curricula across the religious spectrum — all dogma, liberal truisms and making sandwiches for faceless “homeless,” with scant history or textual content. What Pew has really measured, I suspect, is differences in secular education. If black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics score lowest, it’s only partly the fault of their religious leaders (including even Klepto-Pastor Willie Long).
    My Protestant husband laughed when I asked him if he’d ever heard about Martin Luther in the church classes he attended weekly throughout childhood. And, when I asked him about Maimonides, my Jewish-“educated” son shrugged. “I recognize the name,” he offered.
    I have watched myself, in just 10 years, as Reform Jewish educational standards slid from sea-level to Dead Sea-level. A decline in intellectualism (admittedly, the atheist’s sheltering arbor) explains this mom’s near-defection from temple life.


    • Mandy–Excellent point. My daughter’s strong public school education did help her, as I noted, in doing well on the survey. Do atheists seek out the best secular schools for their children? I would not be suprised. As for Reform Jewish education, there are some glimmers of hope in some places…some programs are even (finally) tip-toeing into educating Jews formally about Christianity.

  3. Alan Says:

    Glad your daughter aced the Pew Forum — she’s smart and that’s no surprise.

    I was struck by how poorly the issue of knowing religion/experiencing religion was handled. I’m a praticing Jew who knows about transubstantiation, but I would never presume to say that I knew what taking communion actually meant — for that, one needs to be a participant, not a nerd.

    PS> Liza’s Bill is, like most of us, a post-Kantian. We follow the categorical imperative confident only that our conscience tells us to do so.


    • Alan–
      Yes, the survey was thin, in any number of ways. Beyond Judaism and Christianity, each major world religion got one question. So even as a test of textbook knowledge, it was questionable. I don’t think the authors would claim that they were measuring any sort of deeper, experiential knowledge. It’s interesting to think about how or whether that kind of knowledge could really be measured.

  4. marika partridge Says:

    I love your blog! When is the book you speak of coming out?

    I want to buy a case of it…

  5. Rebecca Weiss Says:

    Sue:

    I’m curious about the friend looking for Jews in shul who believe in God. May I ask which shul and which denomination?

    I’m with Marika on the book…


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