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Could You Repeat the Question? Our Religious Ignorance

October 4, 2010

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently asked more than 3,000 Americans 32 questions about religion-subjects such as the Bible, world religions and important religious figures.

The sad results, I guess, were predictable. But they also put an exclamation point on my commitment to teaching Christian worldview.

The average respondent got only half of the answers right and, what's worse, many respondents couldn't correctly answer questions about their own professed religion.

For instance, 45 percent of Catholics surveyed couldn't identify their church's teaching about Holy Communion. More than half of Protestants couldn't identify Martin Luther. And 43 percent of Jews didn't know that Maimonides, the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher, was Jewish.

If Americans struggled on matters concerning their own professed religion, they knew even less about other people's religion.

Not all groups scored the same: Professed atheists and agnostics scored the highest! Next highest were Mormons and Jews.

As you might expect, atheists crowed upon hearing the news: One atheist told the New York Times that giving a Bible to your child was the best way to make him an atheist.

Hardly. As Ross Douthat of the Times pointed out, self-described atheists are likely to have a "high level of interest in religious detail and debate." Their knowledge greatly exceeds that of "many self-described Methodists or cradle Catholics who have a vague belief in God and show up at church on holidays."

But that's cold comfort, especially when you actually see the multiple-choice questions being asked. Even the ones about church and state relations or the dominant religion in Pakistan ought to be obvious to anyone who has ever read a newspaper.

The sad fact is that for many American Christians, faith is a warm fuzzy that has little to do with knowledge and understanding. The default creed is fast becoming what sociologist Wesley Smith calls "moral therapeutic deism," which holds that the "central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself."

In this worldview, all religions are pretty much the same, so what any particular religion teaches isn't as important as being "good, nice and fair to each other."

Of course, that kind of insipid, inarticulate belief never inspired anyone to live well, especially when living well cost them something. That's because it cannot give an account for the hope that inspires people to live well!

This is why I'm devoting the remainder of my ministry to teaching Christian worldview. The answer to "How Now Shall We Live?" is inseparable from the content of "The Faith." Christian living and apologetics require a solid knowledge of what Christianity teaches and its history.

Many of the objections to and charges against Christianity are based on little more than distortions and even fabrications. If we don't know the real story, we can't respond. Or even those of us who do know the real story are often intimidated. We don't want to sound judgmental or harsh, and so we don't speak up. The result is that myths about the faith go unchallenged. More than any survey results, that should motivate us to understand what it is we profess and to be able to defend it in the market place.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

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