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From the May/June, 2012
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Interfaith Ignorance by Patrick Gray

Interfaith Ignorance

Patrick Gray on Religious Illiteracy & Its Discontents

Davey Concepcion introduced me to the Roman Catholic Church in the summer of 1978. He doesn’t remember it, though, since he was busy at the time playing shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, the “Big Red Machine” that dominated the National League in the 1970s and won the World Series in 1975 and 1976. Although he was overshadowed by future Hall of Fame teammates like Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Tom Seaver, Concepcion became my favorite when my Little League coach gave me the job of starting shortstop when I was eight years old.

Each time I went to bat, I would make the sign of the cross—only I had no idea I was doing so. But Coach Duggar did.

“Son, what are you doing?”

“I’m doing what Davey Concepcion does when he goes up to the plate.”

“Are you Catholic?” he asked.

“No, sir,” I replied, wondering what religion had to do with baseball.

“Well, that’s what Catholics do.”

So I stopped making the sign of the cross. All I really knew about Catholics back then was that I wasn’t one. For me, the signum crucis pretty much summed up Catholicism: superstitious and ritualistic.

Two-Fold Ignorance

That was the first, but by no means the last, false impression I had of Catholicism. I would acquire many more in the years to come: Catholics worship Mary. They worship the pope. They think the pope is sinless. They advocate cannibalism (and believe they practice it on Sundays). In these and many other beliefs I was hardly alone.

Data from a much-publicized survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggest that children are not the only ones ill informed about world religions. On average, respondents gave correct answers to just half of the 32 questions on Pew’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted in 2010. Those identifying themselves as atheist or agnostic performed the best, averaging nearly 21 correct answers. They were followed by Jews (20.5), Mormons (20.3), and white Evangelical Protestants (17.6). With an average of 16 correct answers, white Catholics were perfectly average. Lagging behind were white mainline Protestants (15.8), “nothing in particular” (15.2), black Protestants (13.4), and Hispanic Catholics (11.6).

Some of the findings are unsurprising. Most know that Mother Theresa was Catholic, for example, and relatively few know that Islam is the predominant religion in Indonesia. Other results make one pause. Fewer than half of all Jews recognize that Maimonides was Jewish? Nearly half of Catholics do not realize that their church teaches the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist? And more than half of all Protestants are unaware that Martin Luther provided the spark that ignited the Reformation?

These results show that religious ignorance among Americans is not simply of “the other” but also often extends to one’s own tradition. The Pew data also furnish empirical evidence for the situation described by Stephen Prothero in his 2007 bestseller, Religious Literacy: What Every American Should Know—and Doesn’t. More than a few Protestants draw a blank when asked to name the four Gospels, and a surprising number of Catholics come up short when asked to name the seven sacraments. Most of the students at the nominally Presbyterian college where I teach have no idea what the acronym TULIP stands for and are shocked to hear what Calvin taught about predestination.

Moreover, many of the things people think they know just aren’t so, as was the case with a Catholic acquaintance who wondered why Protestants would have a problem with the Hail Mary, since “every word of it is in the Bible.” (Evangelicals might scratch their heads wondering where they missed the second half of the prayer: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”) I did not ask if she was among the twelve percent of Americans who, according to a Barna survey, think that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

Prothero is correct about the woeful levels of religious literacy among Americans, even if he exaggerates the extent to which ignorance among religious believers is the cause of evil in the world. It is also likely that Americans are not alone in this benighted state, but have simply been more closely scrutinized by pollsters.

Misconceptions of Christ

Christians may know less about world religions than their secular compatriots, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists from around the globe (and across the centuries) display similarly distorted ideas about Christianity and its founder. That is one of the lessons—albeit unintended—to be learned from a fascinating anthology compiled by two theologians at the University of Wales. In Jesus Beyond Christianity (2010), Gregory A. Barker and Stephen E. Gregg present excerpts from non-Christian writers, such as Moses Mendelssohn, Al-Ghazali, Mahatma Gandhi, and the current Dalai Lama, reflecting on the character and teachings of Jesus.

One Talmudic text explains that Jesus was a sorcerer who departed from normative Jewish teaching after being harshly treated by his rabbi, while Kauffman Kohler, an early champion of Reform Judaism, saw him as the “forerunner of the Reform Jew.” Several Muslim authors contend that Jesus was never crucified. Others, such as Ghulam Ahmad, who founded the Ahmadiyyah movement and claimed to be the Messiah himself, theorized that Jesus lived a full life in India after being rescued from the cross.

Ram Mohun Roy, an Indian contemporary and kindred spirit of Thomas Jefferson, declared that “Jesus was a Unitarian,” a divine teacher but not an atoning savior. Dayananda Saraswati, founder of the nineteenth-century Arya Samaj reform movement, denied the Resurrection and regarded Jesus as a simple and flawed man who “came to create disunion and strife among people.” Other Hindu writers describe him as an “avatar of sorrow,” decidedly more “Eastern” than Jewish.

Buddhist voices are heard, too, from the sixteenth century forward. A Sinhalese folk tale describes Jesus as an uncivilized meat-eater who was executed for stealing goats. Others see him as a moralist whose teachings are compatible with those of Buddhism, though the Chinese monk-scholar Sheng Yen opines that “if he could have been more rational and moderate, then he need not have died.”

Based on this sampling, we can say that neither the educated nor the uneducated agree on what Jesus was like, and neither do his admirers or his detractors.

A False Assumption

Some of these impressions are obviously more accurate than others. And most would agree that becoming well-informed about one’s own religion as well as that of others would be a good idea for everyone. But maybe we should be careful of what we wish for, because we may just get it. To assume that greater knowledge of the actual beliefs and practices of other religions will lead to greater harmony is to engage in circular reasoning. Too rarely does it occur to people that it might do just the opposite.

Antipathy towards Christianity among Muslims, for example, is partly due to their belief that Christians regard Jesus as divine—a stance firmly based on an accurate perception and not on any misunderstanding. The same could be said of the bewilderment of ancient Greeks and Romans concerning the Jewish practices of circumcision and abstaining from pork. Thinking that friction is primarily a function of ignorance, many participants in inter-religious dialogue see only what they want to see in other traditions. Their hearts may be in the right place, but that doesn’t make their arguments any less fallacious.

Getting to know someone better will lead to friendship only if that someone is not an unsympathetic character. It is an awkward but indubitable fact that all religions teach doctrines that strike “neutral” observers as odd and misguided at best, or blasphemous and pathological at worst. Protestants and Catholics are hardly unique in this regard; the fact also applies to Jewish attitudes toward Christianity, Christian attitudes toward Islam, Muslim attitudes toward Hinduism, and so on. Yes, cultural and sociological factors play a role in explaining why people practice the religions they do, but in many cases the reason is that they have considered alternatives and found them wanting. Greater familiarity, unfortunately, sometimes does breed greater contempt.

This is what Eliza Griswold found, to her surprise and consternation, as she travelled through Asia and Africa while writing The Tenth Parallel (2010; the title reflects the fact that roughly half of the world’s Muslims and Christians live in the area near ten degrees latitude north of the equator, often side by side if not very amicably). While Griswold, a poet and journalist, seems more interested in the fault lines within religions, especially within Islam, the stories she tells give just as much evidence for persistent strife between Islam and Christianity. One might expect—and hope—that first-hand knowledge of “the other” would lessen strife between Christians and Muslims. They know each other better than Western intellectuals can ever know them, yet the inconvenient truth is that they do not all get along.

Deep & Abiding Differences

Prothero’s most recent book, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter (2010), is thus a necessary follow-up to his earlier work on religious illiteracy. He exposes the fatuousness of what he calls “Godthink,” the notion that all religions are essentially the same in their fundamental principles.

Barker and Gregg likewise state that the array of diverse voices they collected in Jesus Beyond Christianity “will not allow . . . a fuzzy pluralistic tolerance which seeks to bless equally all points of view.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s foreword suggests that the editors share his goal of making progress “on our journey towards realizing that we are indeed part of one human family,” yet they are not so naïve as to think that this will come easily or that Christian misunderstandings are the sole challenges to overcome. There are deep and abiding differences between the world’s religions, and a growing number of writers are discovering that fundamentalists and radicals of whatever stripe are not the only ones who think so.

I now know much more about Catholicism than when I was eight years old. I also know more about Protestants, Jews, Hindus, Taoists, and Buddhists. And while my respect for these and other belief systems has grown, so has my sense that, in some respects, they each are even stranger than I had first imagined.

Yes, the world’s religions have more in common than we sometimes think. Without a proper awareness of their differences, however, even the shared values become distorted. Celebrating the diversity of the world’s faiths at the margins while turning a blind eye to the differences that happen to be less endearing is an inadequate approach to inter-religious dialogue. At best, it is an attempt to have our ecumenical cake and eat it too. At worst, to borrow the categories of Catholic moral theology, it can turn into a case of invincible ignorance. 


Patrick Gray teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and their two children.

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