The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life did a survey of 3400 Americans recently on religion and, as the New York times summarized it: “Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.”
Asking incredibly softball multiple choice questions about religious matters (What religion was Mother Theresa? Who was responsible for the Protestant Reformation?) the Pew Survey found the group that answered the most questions correctly were the “agnostic/atheists” followed closely by Jews and Mormons. Far back were the ordinary Christian sects (evangelicals, mainstream Protestants, Catholics, etc.). While I am sure this will be controversial in some circles, it certainly isn’t here.
Basically, the finds are what they have always been: the more you know about “God-based” religions, the less likely you are to be religious.
Formal religions have known this for years. In the early days of Christianity there was more than a little strife between two communities: one led by Paul and one lead by Jesus’s brother, James. When the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 77 AD, the remaining leadership of the Jerusalem sect (James had been executed quite a bit earlier) was essentially eliminated. The Jerusalem sect was more communal and believed in the direct experience of “Christianity,” while Paul’s efforts lead to our current system in which ordinary Christians need someone (priest, minister, bishop, pope) to explain what it means to them. And the less the ordinary folks know, the more power the “leadership caste” has and so forth.
Most people also don’t know much religious history, especially recent history. Most conservatives overly idealize the past (while liberals overly idealize the future) and if you were to ask them the question “Are people more religiously observant now or in the past?” they would all claim “Oh, much more so in the past!” Which, of course, isn’t true. In the early 1900’s people who attended church once a month or more was estimated at less than 20% of adults. Currently the numbers are as high or higher than they have ever been. The Pew Survey states that the number of adults who attend church services at least once a week is around 60%. So those who have been claiming that our problems are based on people turning their backs on religion, need to explain how it is that our problems have happened as church attendance has soared.
So, people are ignorant of their own religion and ignorant of other folk’s religions and the more they learn, the more likely they will be atheists. Follow the money now. It is in religious leader’s interests (power, financial, numbers, etc.) to make sure their members know as little as possible. Think about it, who wouldn’t like to have a religion that is what we want it to be when we want it. If you know not much about your religion, but like it, it will have whatever attributes you’d like it to have. Most people are ignorant of the fact that the Holy Bible advocates slavery, that it provides instructions about how to sell a daughter into slavery, how prior to “God-based” religions, most religions got along with one another. The so-called “pagan” religions were mostly “live and let live” organizations. As long as you didn’t attack them, they would leave you alone. But when monotheism came about, all of a sudden it became okay to kill the pagans, destroy their gods, and take over their lands. One of the softball Pew Survey questions was “What is the primary religion of Pakistan?” The reason Pakistan is Muslim, is because of the violent strife, continuing today, between Muslims and Hindus on the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was created and then all Muslims were told to get out of India, a country primarily Hindu today. This happened in the same country that gave us the example of Ghandi, a paragon of non-violence. This kind of religious strife is really hard to identify in the past. It is based upon an “I am right and you are wrong” mentality that is absolutist in a way that didn’t exist before today’s dominant religions existed.
Maybe if people just knew more about their own religions, the world would be a much better place.