Photography by Andy Coan

The September 28 publication of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life lent itself to various surprising titles, many of which focused on how atheists and agnostics proved they had a greater comparative religious knowledge than Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Mormons. The survey polled 3,412 Americans 18 and older and asked 32 questions about their own faith and other religions. Atheists and agnostics scored the highest, correctly answering on average 20.9 questions; they were followed by Jews at 20.5, Mormons at 20.3, and Protestants at 16.0 and Catholics 14.7.

These results should be embarrassing to U.S. Catholics and particularly to all those involved in Catholic education. It’s true that there may not be a reason to panic that those of other religions or no religion at all are more easily able to recognize the Hindu figures Vishnu and Shiva or to identify famous religious figures such as Jonathan Edwards, the Dalai Lama, Joseph Smith, and Martin Luther. But there is clearly reason for serious concern when atheists show a much greater grasp of the books of the Bible and key Bible figures than Catholics do.

Of the 32 questions on the survey, nine were those that every adult Catholic legitimately should have been able to answer:

What is the first book of the Bible?
What are the names of the first four books of the New Testament, that is, the four Gospels?
Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth or Jericho?
Which of these is not in the Ten Commandments? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; or keep holy the Sabbath day?
Which figure is associated with remaining obedient to God despite suffering? Elijah, Moses, Job or Abraham?
Which figure is associated with leading the exodus from Egypt? Elijah, Moses, Job or Abraham?
Which figure is associated with willingness to sacrifice his son for God? Elijah, Moses, Job or Abraham?
What is Catholic teaching about bread and wine in Communion? The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Or the bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ?
Which group traditionally teaches that salvation is through faith alone? Protestants, Catholics, both or neither?

What were the results? With regard to the seven Biblical questions:

  • Only 42 percent of Catholics could name Genesis as the first book of the Bible (compared to 71 percent of atheists and agnostics, 85 percent of Mormons, 76 percent of Protestants and 65 percent of Jews).
  • Just 33 percent of Catholics could name the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (compared to 39 percent of atheists and agnostics, 73 percent of Mormons, 57 percent of Protestants and 17 percent of Jews).
  • Only 54 percent of Catholics could name Bethlehem as Jesus’ native place (bested again by 70 percent of atheists and agnostics, 78 percent of Protestants, 83 percent of Mormons and 61 percent of Jews ).
  • 57 percent of Catholics knew that the Golden Rule wasn’t one of the Ten Commandments (which compared to 62 percent of atheists and agnostics, 56 percent of Protestants, 81 percent of Muslims, 62 percent of Jews).
  • Only 25 percent of Catholics could identify the sufferings of Job (in comparison with 42 percent of atheists, 70 percent of Mormons, 48 percent of Protestants and 47 percent of Jews).
  • 65 percent of Catholics correctly identified Moses as the leader of the exodus (which was still far less than the 87% of atheists and agnostics, 92 percent of Mormons, 74 percent of Protestants and 90 percent of Jews).
  • 55 percent of Catholics identified Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (compared to 68 percent of atheists and agnostics, 87 percent of Mormons, 63 percent of Protestants and 83 percent of Jews).

In terms of the knowledge of the Old Testament and New Testament, Mormons overall correctly answered 5.7 of the 7 questions, white evangelical Protestants got 5.1, atheists and agnostics 4.4, black Protestants 4.4, Jews 4.3 (including 14 percent of Jews who got both New Testament questions correct), white mainline Protestants 3.9, white Catholics 3.8, and Latino Catholics (who could take the survey in either Spanish or English) 2.4. Overall Catholics answered 3.4 questions correctly.

The Biblical questions posed on the Pew Survey did not concern trivial matters that those who might have a strong grasp of the content of the Bible could easily miss. They were designed so that those familiar with the central content should readily have gotten them. Failure to be able to identify the Book of Genesis implies an ignorance of the revealed truths about the creation of the world and of the human person. The inability to name the Gospel writers seems to indicate a general lack of familiarity with what they wrote of Jesus. Anyone who has ever read the book of Job could never forget the story or the name of the central figure. The inability to identify the most dramatic moment in the life of Abraham points implies a general ignorance of the common father of faith of Christians, Jews and Muslims. And the incapacity of more than a third of Catholics to recognize Moses from a line-up suggests that they have never spent much time thinking about the central event of the Old Testament or seen one of many movies that depict it. From the point of view of faith formation, these failures are the equivalent of Americans’ failing to know the first letter of the alphabet, the names of the four seasons of the year, and the location of the nation’s capital — not to mention being unable to identify George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King from a multiple-choice lineup.

The poor results in terms of Biblical literacy extended into the realm of Catholic theology. With regard to the specifically Catholic question about the Eucharist, only 55 percent of Catholics knew Catholic teaching, that the bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood. Although Catholics did recognize this belief more than other groups (which ranged from 33-41 percent), it’s hard to take much comfort when 41 percent of Catholics thought that Church teaching was that bread and wine were merely symbols and four percent had no answer. With regard to the famous Protestant Reformation battle cry of sola fides, only nine percent of Catholics recognized it as Protestant alone (compared to 22 percent of atheists and agnostics, 22 percent of Mormons, 16 percent of Protestants and ten percent of Jews).

The Pew Forum statisticians did extensive analysis of the data. They showed that several factors influenced better results on the survey: the higher one’s formal education; the greater one’s commitment to frequent practice of one’s religion; the more one read Scripture and books and websites about one’s own religion; the more one read about other religions; and the more one spoke about religion with family or friends. These all point to choices and behaviors that parents, pastors, professors, Catholic school teachers and catechists should be aware of and encourage.

In the past few years, Pope Benedict has been speaking about what he calls an “educational emergency,” a large component of which comes from Catholic illiteracy about the basics of the faith. As the Pew Survey confirms, many U.S. Catholic “schools” — from parishes, to homes, to educational institutions — are failing badly in fulfilling their duty to pass on the faith. Catechetical programs for young children that cumulatively take up about one day a year of instruction are obviously inadequate. Parishes that offer little or no adult education, or where parishioners do not take advantage of what is offered, are clearly deficient. Families and individuals who fail to read the Bible are neglecting one of their most basic responsibilities.

As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” It’s therefore a sad day, and one that must lead to individual and ecclesial conversion, whether atheists know the basics of Sacred Scripture better than those who say they not only know but follow Christ.

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