Sunday, 3 October 2010

Who Knows What?

There has been a flurry of interest in and much speculation about the recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey on US Religious Knowledge. The survey asked a cross-section of the American public about their knowledge of the various doctrines, practices and beliefs of their own and other religions. It also put the same questions to those of no belief.

Many have expressed surprise at the headline finding that atheists and agnostics had better scores than religious people, especially the evangelical Protestants and many Catholics. Daniel Dennett has written an article analysing the results and suggesting explanations for this disparity.

Whilst many in the UK and Europe have no doubt expressed a little amusement at this survey, I can't help but wonder, despite the common study of comparative religion in our schools, whether our results in a similar study conducted here would differ so greatly.

I am often stunned at the complete ignorance of the diversity of belief within the various Christian denominations, and the often false beliefs about other religious groups, if people are even aware of their existence. The ignorance of beliefs within their own religion and denominations is similarly common, if my experiences are anything to go by. It seems ridiculous to me, and I'm sure to many others that people are building their lives around the profession of religious faith, whilst being less than knowledgeable about the doctrines, practices and distinctions of the group which they choose to identify with. Furthermore, the ignorance of, and misconceptions about, other religions must surely be even more widespread.

Many people will regard this as having little relevance to them and their lives, but as religious fundamentalism shows little sign of abating, and is actually multiplying in the western industrialised societies, then this is relevant to us all. Had we the proper safeguards of a truly secular society, then we could ignore this to some extent, but we do not have such a society; religious influence is embedded within the establishment of many nations, regardless of the actual beliefs of their people. Nor can we ignore the blight that such ignorance has on the lives of individuals, whether in terms of the discrimination they may face, the opportunities denied to them, and the simple pleasure and clarity of the truth, when revealed. If you are going to choose to follow a faith-based religion, and embrace it's practice with all that that entails, then surely you should at least know what that religion actually professes, and what the alternatives are?