People Don’t Care About Martin Luther, et al

I just came across this and thought I’d share.

I haven’t said much about the Pew Forum poll regarding people not knowing things about religion because in general it was something mildly interesting but I thought the whole “OMG” response among religious people and the “hahahaha suxxors” response among atheists was ignorant at best, uncharitable at worst, and thoroughly *yawn*

But I came across this post and appreciated some of what the roundtable of scholars had to say on the subject.  The takeaway for me was that a great many religious folks just aren’t in it for a set of history lessons.  That John Edwards was a major figure in the first Great Awakening, that Muslims celebrate Ramadan, etc., all these things aren’t bad things to know (I’m not disparaging knowledge), but a lot of folks go to church to feel a breath of life in otherwise troubled or sad or distracted lives.  Whether they get it or not, I don’t know, I think it’s far too often that people walk out of church not knowing what they came for or what they got from it, but that’s why a lot of them go, I think.  And some go for the coffee and cheese crackers.  And some go because their friends go.  And some go for networking.  And some go out of obligation.  And some go out of a feeling that their children need “moral values,” whatever that means, as if the church should be in the business of teaching your children proto-ethics via allegory.  And so on.  But I doubt a great many of them go in order to be more deeply educated about the vagaries of 17th century religious movements.

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4 comments on “People Don’t Care About Martin Luther, et al

  1. Quinne says:

    ignorant at best, uncharitable at worst

    If you’re saying that being ignorant is generally better than being uncharitable, I don’t know that I agree. Misguided charity can lead to unintended and unacknowledged harm; uncharitable knowledge will at worse lead to harm done after a consideration of the facts at hand. It seems reasonable to think, for example, that when the Pope tells people condoms give you AIDS, he believes — out of ignorance — that he is being charitable.

    As to your actual point, I acknowledged here that the groups who did well in certain categories have good reasons to have done well, which don’t necessarily point to their overall level of religious knowledge.

    Are religious people ignorant of religion? Not flatly; I think they often have a lot of knowledge about their own holy books, and nothing in the poll contradicts that. My parents certainly have a better overall grasp of the Bible as literature and moral guide than I do. That’s what they use it for. Meanwhile, I get my literature and moral guides from other sources. I’m sure I know more about the role of Christianity in history, and about failed Biblical prophecies and contradictory accounts of things in the Bible.

    If I’m going to be out as an atheist, that’s almost my job. Even if I didn’t enjoy discussing religion, it would still be far more important for me to be able to convincingly justify my beliefs — against Christianity in particular — than it would be for a Christian. The respected status accorded specifically religious faith in society means a Christian can always fall back on that; but if I’m challenged, I’m compelled to defend myself logically, as I would be on any other issue.

    If a Christian says — and certain types absolutely will — “it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian,” it would be inconcievable for me to reply: “I thought more faith was supposed to be a good thing?” I seriously do not think that I would be understood, because what such people really mean by that statement is something like nobody can justify a belief on this subject because I am already right.

    Sorry for nominally responding to only six words of your post, but I think my response to everything else you said is encapsulated somewhere in this ramble.

    • tolkienista says:

      When I use the term “uncharitable,” I am not referring to charitable work or even “charity” in its KJV sense of “love.” Instead, I am referring to what Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of retrieval” (interchangable with “hermeneutics of charity”) that supplements our hermeneutics of suspicion — a hermeneutic of interpreting encounters, other people, and texts, in ways that try to ferret out their meaning in light of what is intended by the producer of the object to be interpreted. By “uncharitable,” therefore, I meant the way in which some of the response seemed to willingly (or unknowingly) misinterpret the reasons WHY the results might have been the way they were — in other words, there was a sort of tendency to crow about how stupid religious people were, which felt like a rather glib eliding of the elaborated reasons why a religious person might not know that much about the Mahabharata. “Uncharitable,” by my usage, means interpreting in a way that fails to account for the factors that produced an utterance or an event. (We can talk about hermeneutics if you want, but I want to be clear that I don’t think a hermeneutic of charity needs to be our only adopted hermeneutic: dismissing what a subtle modern racist says about race (i.e. Harvard law students saying that blacks are, on average, not as smart as whites) on the grounds that “she can’t help it, she was taught that way,” or “she was just expressing ignorant views,” for example, would I think be an instance where one’s hermeneutic of charity is overpowering what should be, in this case, a much stronger hermeneutic of suspicion.)

      Where we differ on the Pope is that I think the Pope knows that condoms won’t give you AIDS, and chooses to lie. I.E., the Pope is, by my use of the word uncharitable, being much more than ignorant.

      But yeah, I think the argument that “atheists know more because they have to defend themselves more often” is quite true, and I don’t really have any disagreements with what you have to say. My bigger concern is that the best-scoring group still managed a 65. Where I come from, that’s a fail without credit.

      • Quinne says:

        Noted w/r/t charity. I am familiar with the concept you are describing; your syntax just caught me off guard. But, I’m baffled that you’re invoking hermeneutics to describe the atheist response to the poll. I’m not sure it makes sense to speak of a charitable or suspicious way to interpret an empirical fact, except in the more limited sense of being disingenuously nice about the fact’s implications. My experience of the atheist response was that it was closer to “um, duh” than gloating. A “suxxors” response might exist somewhere, but it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. An atheist who was contemptuous of religion’s worth wouldn’t be proud of hir religious knowledge, but would see it as a necessary evil. And an atheist who appreciated religion couldn’t be vituperative enough about everyone not identifying as atheist to insult that group — just, perhaps, sad at religious people’s widespread ignorance. I have very mixed views on the matter and feel some of both.

        My bigger concern is that the best-scoring group still managed a 65. Where I come from, that’s a fail without credit.

        I can’t quite agree with this being a concern, mainly because I think many of the survey items really are relatively unimportant. I would even say that’s the case for Jonathan Edwards (whom you seem to have confused with a folksy, disgraced Democratic politician) — he’s interesting, but unless you want to have a really in-depth understanding of the history of religion in the United States specifically, he isn’t crucial. And then many of the other questions are about doctrines that I consider laughably false on their face, or arguably counterproductive community unifying rituals from communities I don’t belong to. And even though I know about all those things, I wouldn’t mind living in a world where no one had ever heard of them, provided they replaced that religious knowledge with real and useful knowledge. Of course, that’s not actually happening.

      • tolkienista says:

        Since I don’t regularly read atheist blogs (with the exception of my friend Josh Oxley’s Sleeping in Sundays), I must admit that my interaction with the “atheist” response consisted of reading Facebook news feeds. So I must admit my own uncharity here, in that I was put off from the very topic by some very specific people I know whose posts were most definitely in the “suxxors” camp. And the corresponding feeling on the blogs and news sites I do frequent with more regularity were quite despondent.

        With regard to the concern I expressed that people did poorly on this test, I quite emphatically feel that the reason this is upsetting is not that the knowledge tested is that important, but that A) you live in a world where people have heard of them, and often do things in response to them that are dangerous, and so knowing something about them might come in handy, and B) most of the questions are things that, honestly, someone who reads a newspaper on a regular basis and made it through tenth grade English and Social Studies classes should have at least a passing touchstone of familiarity with. Maybe this is the bias of my place in having made the study of religion my academic field, and I see as basic knowledge things other people dismiss, but I could have answered most of the questions on this quiz by ninth grade, SIMPLY from things picked up in social studies from grades 4-8. In that sense, my concern is not with a lack of religious literacy, but a lack of literacy in general: the questions are about things that are basic enough to Western history (Martin Luther), English (Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God has been used in English classes for a long time, although I do confess to have very little idea why), world studies (the hajj might be something those interested in current geopolitics would need to know), and so forth. So the primary reason for my concern is not that people necessarily need MORE religious literacy, but wouldn’t it be great if people paid attention during middle school.

        As to using an improperly truncated form of the name Jonathan, mea culpa.

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