Thursday, October 07, 2010

Inside the Circled Wagons

Last week Pew Research Center announced the results of a survey it had conducted among American residents regarding their familiarity with world religions. The talking heads have been abuzz ever since over the results, most of them offering sound bites of sensationalism rather than anything of substance.

The survey found that most Americans are largely unaware of world religions including their own. On a 32 question survey which was largely focused on Christianity but included questions about other world religions, the average survey respondent scored about 50%. I have to say that’s better than I would have predicted. But in a country with as much religious diversity as our own, it’s also pretty scary.

The buzz was generated by the fact that respondents identifying themselves as agnostic or atheist scored the highest on the survey with an average score of about 2 out of 3 correct answers. They were followed closely by Jews. Of Christian groups Mormons scored by far the highest with 63% correct. That number drops to just over half of the questions correct among evangelical Protestants and by the time one gets to African-American Protestants and Hispanic Catholics those numbers drop to 42% and 36% respectively.

It seems that Christians don’t like being seen as more ignorant than Jews and particularly resent being portrayed as more ignorant than atheists/agnostics. Even more troubling are the numbers about self-awareness of their own traditions. On average Christians scored just over 50% on the questions about the Bible and Christianity. That’s a rather shocking lack of awareness of religions that are generally held devoutly and proffered fervently to others.

Mormons scored the highest here with nearly 2/3 correct answers while evangelicals scored 61% correct here. The remainder of the Christian groups got less than half of the questions correct about their own tradition. On world religions, only Mormons got more than half correct with Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics scoring less than 1/3 correct. Similarly, regarding religion and public life, none of the Christian groups score higher than slightly more than 50% correct.

A number of concerns emerge from this data. First, while Americans pride themselves on being a religious people, for most of us that religion is largely uninformed. That lack of information includes awareness of one’s own tradition but is particularly notable regarding other religions as well as religion’s role in our public life. The problem with a religious population simultaneously marked by its fervor as well as its ignorance would seem self-evident.

That is particularly true when the data for ethnically and racially defined religious groups are examined. Black churches historically have been centers of refuge for African-Americans in a largely hostile racist culture. More recently, Hispanic Protestant churches have proven refuges for immigrants to America as well as for the many who have moved to the barrios ringing Latin America’s great cities, refugees from economic devastation in the countryside.

But when does the refuge become an intellectual prison? One of the striking aspects of the Pew data is that while racially and ethnically defined churches with their circled wagons mentalities do provide support for those within the circle and defense against the hostile elements outside, they also tend to foster low levels of awareness of religion both inside and outside the circle.

In much the same way gated communities serve as the locus for intellectual incest, where the like-minded and like-situated talk only among themselves and screen out any potential disaffirming other, circled wagons religious bodies become hothouses where one’s biases are both affirmed and protected against any possible challenge. The high levels of support for the anti-gay Proposition 8 in 2008 among these very communities speak to the effectiveness of the circled wagons in screening out any arguments or evidence contrary to the approved group think within.

But perhaps the more serious concern that emerges from the Pew data is how it illuminates high profile inter-religious conflicts such as the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan which has been consistently and deliberately mischaracterized as “the Ground Zero mosque.” Much like the Holy Roman Empire, which was neither Roman nor an Empire and rarely anything remotely holy, the center is neither a mosque nor is it particularly close to the 9-11 site. But such facts have not deterred its antagonists who would paint all Muslims as terrorists, blaming an entire world religion for the acts of a handful of extremists. Imagine if Christianity were summed up by the work of Torquemada or the Puritans of Salem.

Not surprisingly, the Pew data found that religious awareness rises with educational attainment. It’s pretty hard to attend anything other than a circled wagons religious college and not be exposed to some of the ideas about religion that Pew was testing here. More importantly, it’s pretty difficult in most urban centers in the country to attend a college or university where one does not actually encounter a person with religious understandings and practices which are different from one’s own. Hence, while college graduates get about 2/3 of the Pew questions correct, that number plunges to four out of 10 among those with a high school diploma or less.

In a multicultural and religiously diverse country like the United States, ignorance about religions is not bliss. It’s dangerous. A lack of understanding about the role of religion and public life can lead to the homophobia confused for religiosity observable in California and the vote on Proposition 8 which centered largely in religious communities, most notably in the insular ethnic and racially defined religious communities there. A lack of understanding of other world religions (and perhaps educational attainment as well) can fuel high profile confrontations with other world religions such as the gun-totin’ pastor in Gainesville, FL and his plans to burn the mountain of Qurans he had received from fellow Islamaphobics around the country on the anniversary of 9-11.

In all fairness, it is important to note that awareness of religions does not necessarily translate to a propensity to treat the other with respect. The antics of atheist proselytizers Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris readily demonstrate the willingness to engage in a crude stereotyping which sums up entire religious traditions by their worst case scenarios for purposes of dismissing if not demonizing them. And the role of the Mormons in the funding of dehumanizing and disingenuous advertising in the Prop. 8 campaign demonstrates that awareness alone is not the silver bullet for misanthropy and the willingness to engage in discriminatory public policy.

Over the past two weeks I have given the abbreviated version of Pew’s survey (which you can take at their website) to my students, a number of whom are honors students. They are generally scoring between 75-85% on the survey. I then show them the data on how they compare to other Americans and the difference educational attainment makes (thus explaining, to some degree, their higher scores). And I ask them to consider what difference that makes.

These are students who tend to be dismayed by the religious antics of Quran burning pastors and uncritical, passionate sound bite arguments swirling around Ground Zero. It is important that they realize how the college education they take for granted will change the way they see the world and potentially put them at odds with those they left behind back home. It is even more important that they see how awareness of the other almost always makes a significant difference in the way we see and treat them.

Quran burnings and Ground Zero mosque debates are no doubt the harbingers of things to come in a nation where the fastest growing religious self-identification is “none of the above.” In a very short time, this will be their concern. I wish them well in meeting these challenges. I think they’ve clearly got their work cut out for them.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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