Religious Ignorance in a Religious Society
by Jay Case
One of the stories from the departmental lore where I work comes from a colleague who a few years ago had stopped into a barbershop for a haircut. He noticed a breaking news story on the shop’s TV and asked the barber what was happening. The barber responded by saying, “Oh, it’s just an event somewhere over there in Islam.” So now, whenever we crack departmental jokes about ignorance, the phrase “somewhere over there in Islam” inevitably makes an appearance.
Daniella Zalcman (CC BY 2.0)
Mahmoud Whatsisname, President of a place in Islam somewhere
I am guessing that members of the American Society of Church History are all too familiar with Americans’ ignorance of the world and its history. We probably react to this reality in different ways. We might wring our hands. We might disregard ignorance as something that can’t be helped. Personally, my temptation is to turn to humor in the face of this ignorance, though I don’t know if this is healthy, since it can breed cynicism and self-righteousness.
Yet it provokes me to ask a couple of questions. Is there anything we can do to help the situation? Do we have a responsibility to try to do more to address this ignorance?
We devote ourselves to scholarship and teaching, projects that certainly play a role in the expansion of knowledge and understanding. But we are probably also aware that most of the work we do does not seep through to the public at large.
The findings of a Pew Research poll on Americans’ religious knowledge bear this out. The 2010 poll found that about half of all Americans did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation or that Joseph Smith was Mormon. Only 40% knew that Catholicism teaches that during communion the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Close to 90% could not connect Jonathan Edwards to the First Great Awakening.
The problem, of course, extends beyond just factual knowledge. Ignorance also shapes perceptions of the current religious composition of the United States (and the world), a reality that cannot help but shape the ways that Americans engage one another. According to a study by Grey Matter, “only 56% of all Americans can give any sort of substantive definition of ‘evangelical,’ beyond a simple ‘I don’t know’ or just criticism or invective.” To make matters worse, that 56% included Americans who gave substantive definitions that completely missed the mark, such as stating that evangelicals were strict Catholics or that they worshiped angels.
Thomas Lieser (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Possibly because the word “evangelical” has the word “angel” in it.
Another Gray Matter study from this past October found that Americans estimate that there are about seven times as many Muslims in the United States as what there really are, a response that must play a role in explaining why some Americans feel threatened by Islam. Americans also greatly overestimate the number of Jews and Mormons in the United States, while greatly underestimating the number of Protestants.
Politics does not seem to help much. Even though Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy brought widespread publicity to Mormonism during the past year, 82% of Americans say that they learned little or nothing about Mormonism during the presidential campaign. According to this Pew study, only 29% of Americans could correctly answer two basic factual questions about the history and sacred texts of Mormons.
Americans are not wired to desire historical reflection. There are reasons for this. The historic influence of Protestantism on American culture has generated impulses to disregard tradition as something that could be of value. The American nation established an identity with the conviction that it was created as something new that had broken free from traditions that bound and shackled European nations. The modern concept of progress does not tend to view the past as something that could provide insight for the world today, beyond a utilitarian and almost perfunctory study of what we should avoid.
The project of studying historical Christianity faces additional obstacles. Simply put, we have very few venues in American culture where ordinary people can learn about the history of Christianity. Even though one can legally teach about religion in public schools, it seems that most educators find it easier to navigate potential conflicts by ignoring religion altogether. In fact, most American educators may not even know what, constitutionally, they may or may not do in class. While 90% of Americans in the Pew study on religious knowledge knew that the Supreme Court has ruled that a teacher cannot lead a prayer in class, only 36% knew that a public school can offer a comparative religion class and only 23% knew that a teacher could read from the Bible as a source of literature. Although we can hope that public school teachers are better informed than the general public on these issues, I have encountered anecdotal evidence that indicates many teachers are themselves unsure about how religion can be taught.
Popular media tend to avoid religious history as well. Like it or not, most Americans seem to pick up much of their conceptions of history from what they consume in film and TV. Neither of these media deals much with religious history. This may not be all bad. In some cases, silence may be preferable to misinformation. Should we be thankful that “Inherit the Wind” at least tells some version of the Scopes Trial or should we bemoan the fact that the film and play ends up casting so much of that event in stereotypes? Are we better off that we don’t have any major films that deal with Thomas Aquinas, the Great Awakening, African Independent churches, Vatican II, or Pentecostalism in Brazil? I don’t know. At any rate, this influential segment of American culture does little to provide knowledge of Christian history.
Finally, American churches do a poor job of educating their members about what their own traditions believe. Christian Smith’s studies on the spiritual lives of teenagers and emergent adults demonstrate a widespread lack of basic knowledge about their own religious tradition, even among those who attend church regularly and express a sincere commitment to their religious faith. According to Smith, “the language and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.”1 If churches are doing a poor job of teaching the basics about their own religious tradition, they must be doing very little or nothing to help their members understand other religious traditions.
So here we are, scholars of Christianity living (most of us, at least) in the most religious nation in the industrialized world. This society, nevertheless, is quite ignorant about Christianity.
Is it too grandiose to think that the American public could gain a better understanding of the history of Christianity if ASCH members embarked on more specific and intentional projects that targeted the general public? Or is this a situation over which we really have no influence?
What if, for instance, we wrote more books that were aimed at nonacademic audiences? A few ASCH members already write books for general audiences, but more of us could undertake these kinds of projects. What if we wrote books with different kinds of formats than what we usually produce? Could we write books that were more fully shaped by narratives (though based on good scholarship) rather than evidentiary-based argumentation? Maybe some of us could try a hand at historical fiction. Since most ASCH members teach classes to non-specialists, we should already have experience in understanding the limits and misconceptions of American audiences. If we have put much time into teaching effectively, we would have ideas about how to make our areas of expertise compelling and pertinent.
Blogs would seem to be another form of nonacademic engagement that ASCH members might consider. Several historians use the Patheos website to delve into matters of Christian history. Many others have already ventured out with their own individual blogs. Blogs may be the most readily accessible way to engage in conversations with non-academics. There are probably more ways that we could engage nonacademic audiences.
Of course, these projects take time and effort and are not always recognized as valid scholarly efforts by promotion and tenure committees. We need tenured and senior members of departments to give serious consideration to the idea that work undertaken for popular audiences counts as valid scholarship. We have seen no shortage of critics in the last few decades who have pointed out that the academy produces far too many scholarly works on narrow and highly specialized topics that are only read by a very small fraction of scholars. Adjusting our academic incentives to reward scholars for work geared toward popular audiences might help to bring some balance to this problem.
Is it possible that, beyond the classroom and the scholarly monograph, we could put a dent in Americans’ ignorance of Christian history? Or am I just dreaming?
 Christian Smith, with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 171.