What expres­sion of style could be more vio­lent than reli­gion?

Accord­ing to our friends at the Pew Forum on Reli­gion & Pub­lic Life, about six in ten adults in the US con­sid­er reli­gion to be “very impor­tant” in their lives.  This frac­tion is far larg­er than the com­pa­ra­ble sta­tis­tic in (oth­er?) devel­oped coun­tries.  The punch­line, though, is that adults in the US don’t actu­al­ly know any­thing about reli­gion.  Not only haven’t they a clue about com­par­a­tive reli­gion— they don’t even know the basics of their own faiths.  45% of Amer­i­can Catholics, for exam­ple, don’t know that the wine and bread are sup­posed to turn into the flesh and blood of Christ when they eat it.  (Foot­note on “tran­sub­stan­ti­a­tion”, so called by the Church.  Have you noticed how dis­gust­ing things always get Latinized?  Pre­sum­ably this is a sort of rhetor­i­cal equiv­a­lent to don­ning Latex gloves.)

About half of Protes­tants (53%)”, con­tin­ues the Pew report, “can­not cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fy Mar­tin Luther as the per­son whose writ­ings and actions inspired the Protes­tant Ref­or­ma­tion, which made their reli­gion a sep­a­rate branch of Chris­tian­i­ty”.  Oops, is about all we can say to this one.

Dear read­er, you should try the Pew quiz, just for per­spec­tive.  I did.  I didn’t know too much about the Great Awak­en­ings, so got that ques­tion wrong.  (Of course now I’ve read the Wikipedia arti­cle, so I’m total­ly an expert.)  The oth­er ques­tions seemed pret­ty basic to me; and I’m not espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in reli­gion.  I think my score would be slight­ly below the medi­an for French cab dri­vers.  Here in god’s coun­try, though,

The most inter­est­ing thing about this test is the way score aver­ages break down by reli­gious affil­i­a­tion.

There’s much to unpack here (Mor­mons?), but the high order bit is fair­ly clear.  If we took the 52% of Jews who don’t actu­al­ly believe in god (tech­ni­cal­ly, I sup­pose that would include me) and reas­signed them to the athe­ist camp, I think we’d see an even stark­er con­trast.  Of course, based on one of the Pew ques­tions, it seems only 85% of Amer­i­cans actu­al­ly know what “athe­ist” means, so maybe there’s some fur­ther con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in these sta­tis­tics due to the respon­dents not know­ing the name of their faith.  I remem­ber not know­ing, when some­one asked me “what I was” on the play­ground in first grade.  After draw­ing a blank, my friend began enu­mer­at­ing, “Catholic? Protes­tant?”, etc., and since I had no idea, I latched onto “Protes­tant”, because I thought, “that must mean some­one who protests all that bull­shit”.

It seems clear that there’s a cor­re­la­tion between reli­gios­i­ty and igno­rance. It’s eas­i­er, after all, to take the priest seri­ous­ly when you don’t know that he expects you to believe that you’re lit­er­al­ly chew­ing on the recon­sti­tut­ed gris­tle of a 2000 year old prophet every Sun­day.  (But maybe if that were true, it real­ly would taste more like mat­zoh than like chick­en!)  Not know­ing any­thing about sci­ence, and being unaware of the extent in space and time of the Uni­verse, must help too.  But per­haps the strongest effect is just know­ing some­thing about reli­gions as a whole: know­ing how they begin.  Know­ing that they’re all so con­tin­gent on the very human, very arbi­trary details of their ori­gins.  See­ing how they bor­row ideas from each oth­er, then inex­pert­ly cov­er their tracks and claim to be the one true faith; see­ing how they cre­ate and prop­a­gate their pow­er struc­tures.  Recent reli­gions like Mor­monism are espe­cial­ly enlight­en­ing this way, because their births aren’t so shroud­ed in alien cul­tures, dead lan­guages, oblit­er­at­ed records, and rewrit­ten his­to­ries.  In upstate New York in the 1830s, the tawdry details of Joseph Smith’s life and “work” are dev­as­tat­ing.  To me, this sug­gests that athe­ists don’t know more about com­par­a­tive reli­gion because they find it so much more fas­ci­nat­ing than the faith­ful; rather, the more one learns, the hard­er it becomes to iden­ti­fy with a faith (Julia Sweeney describes this process beau­ti­ful­ly in Let­ting Go of God, excerpt­ed in This Amer­i­can Life #290). Maybe it’s out of self-preser­va­tion that cer­tain reli­gions are so eager to keep the faith­ful away from the apples of knowl­edge. (Or is it pome­gran­ates?)

It’s hard to look at the Pew sta­tis­tics and not feel a sense of despair and, well, home­less­ness. Is this land real­ly for you and me?  What does it mean, to say “I am an Amer­i­can”?  On the hier­ar­chy of soci­etal scales, I feel deeply con­nect­ed to my fam­i­ly and friends.  I feel hap­py with the cities, with Seat­tle, New York, San Fran­cis­co.  Hap­py, also, about being human, if you squint and stay focused on the beau­ti­ful, the great, the lov­ing and the bril­liant, and ignore the self-inflict­ed suf­fer­ing, igno­rance, bad man­age­ment and mis­ery.  In between, at that awk­ward nation-state lev­el, I’m draw­ing an emo­tion­al blank— no con­nec­tion.

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