God in the U.S.A.: Americans Know More About Religion Than Most Other Subjects

The real headline coming out of this week's survey on God in America should be that our knowledge of religion is not as bad as other subjects, and is arguably stronger.
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The headlines this week were bold: "Americans Don't Know Much About Religion"; "Atheists Know More About Religion Than Believers"; "Basic Religious Test Stumps Most Americans."

Eh? Did these writers read the survey these articles were based on? The Pew Forum survey on religious knowledge in America contained a number of revelations and surprises, but few were covered in the initial articles. After reading the actual results, here are four important truths about Americans and God.

1) Americans know more about religion than almost any other topic.

For starters, the 3,412 people polled for this study are not exactly students of history. The first substantive question respondents were asked was, "Can you tell me the name of the vice president of the United States?" Only 59% answered correctly. The same meager number knew what antibiotics do, and an even smaller number could correctly name the New Deal as the signature program of FDR. So as a baseline: These people were not very knowledgeable about the world in general.

By contrast, their answers about religion seemed downright Nobel-worthy. Three-quarters knew the Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday; 68 percent knew the Constitution forbids establishing religion; 63 percent knew Genesis is the first book of the Bible; and the same number who knew who Joe Biden was knew the Quran is the holy book of Islam. Americans are religious savants.

2) The most popular religious figure in America is Moses.

In my book America's Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America, I explore how Moses became the defining figure of American history. The pilgrims quoted his story; Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed that he be on the U.S. seal; the Statue of Liberty and Superman were modeled after him; every American president from Washington to Lincoln to Reagan to Obama was shaped by his story.

This Pew survey proves that Americans' love affair with the superhero of the Bible continues. Asked about various figures from the Bible -- Jesus, Job, Moses, and Abraham -- more Americans knew about Moses than the others. And quizzed about a number of biblical stories, including the Gospels, Americans knew more about the Ten Commandments than the rest of those prominent stories. Moses is the most beloved religious figure in America today.

3) Believers still dominate in America; atheists are not gaining ground.

Despite a decade in which evangelical non-believers have driven the national conversation about faith, the number of atheists is still minuscule in America. Only 6 percent of respondents said they don't believe in God, with another 1 percent saying they didn't know. By contrast, 69 percent said they were absolutely certain God exists, and another 17 percent said they were fairly certain.

But wiping out another stereotype, these believers are not particularly dogmatic. Only a third said the Bible should be taken literally, and asked how often they attend religious services, by far the largest tally said a few times a year, if at all. Americans are by and large casual, non-ideological, benign believers.

4) Americans know as much about other religions as they know about their own.

It was common to read this survey as saying Americans are ignorant about other faiths, and there is evidence to support this claim. Only 38 percent knew that Vishnu and Shiva are central figures in Hinduism. Only 36 percent knew that nirvana is a state of being free from suffering and is an aim of Buddhism. Only 27 percent knew that Indonesia contains mostly Muslims. But since when is the religious makeup of Jakarta the standard for religious literacy?

Consider these statistics: Two-thirds knew that India is predominantly Hindu. Seven in ten knew that Pakistan is predominantly Muslim. Half knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic. Amazingly, more knew Ramadan is the holy month of Islam than knew who wrote Moby Dick. All in all, Americans score fairly well on their religious knowledge of the rest of the world.

For decades, surveys have shown that Americans' knowledge of basic math, science, and history is appallingly low. The real headline coming out of this week's survey on God in America is that our knowledge of religion is not as bad as other subjects, and is arguably stronger. Considering that we are engaged in two wars in Muslim countries in the Middle East, as well as an economic transformation that brings us into closer business relationships with Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians across Asia, it's safe to say that our awareness of different religious traditions -- and our ability to coexist with them -- may become a key national security advantage in years to come.

Bruce Feiler is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including Walking the Bible, Abraham, and Where God Was Born. His book America's Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America has just been released in paperback.

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