American Jews Know Their Religion

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.
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Jews get a lot of bad press these days, so I’m happy to be able to offer some news that can only raise our esteem in the eyes of the American public — and more important, in our own eyes. As you may have heard, the prestigious Pew Research Center has just released a survey that examines how much Americans know about religion. The answer, Pew found, is: not much.

Jews, on the other hand, know quite a bit. They turn out to be the most knowledgeable in matters of faith among all the religious communities examined, by a goodly margin. The only group that got more questions right was atheists and agnostics, who presumably spend their days scouring the books in search of bloopers.

The survey’s overall results are causing a good deal of hand-wringing out there in the pulpits and pews of the heartland. America is the most religious nation in the developed world, and darn proud of it. It’s pretty embarrassing to discover that we don’t know what we’re talking about. The Colorado Springs Gazette called it “a wake-up call for believers.” Ohio’s respected daily Toledo Blade editorialized that the “abysmal” state of American religious literacy “puts the fiery debates over Qur’an burnings and the Ground Zero mosque into perspective. Americans get passionate about religious controversies without knowing many facts.”

As disappointed as Americans are in themselves overall, the religious knowledge displayed by Jews is surprising for the opposite reason. Jews are considered one of the most secular American religious communities, with low levels of affiliation, synagogue attendance, ritual observance and — what’s most relevant here — minimal religious education. How do Jews come to outscore Protestants, Catholics and even evangelicals on a religious literacy test?

The easy answer would be that Jews and atheists score high because they share a detached curiosity about religion. But that appears to be incorrect. The group that trails most closely behind Jews is Mormons. What the two faiths share is minority status. Each makes up about 2% of the population, or just over 6 million followers according to Pew research, tiny minorities in a sea of Protestants and Catholics. Inevitably, minorities absorb the majority culture around them in a way that isn’t reciprocated. In effect, Jews and Mormons learn about two traditions — their own and the majority’s — while mainstream Christians only know one.

But that points to a bigger surprise: how well most Jews know their Judaism. This goes against all our gloomy research on impending Jewish demise. Assimilation was supposed to wipe away all that collective memory a generation ago. What’s going on?

To answer that, we need to understand something about the survey itself. The researchers interviewed 3,412 persons by phone, a large sample, during three weeks last May and June. Respondents were asked 32 questions on a range of religious topics, along with some general knowledge questions for comparison and demographic questions to help analyze the results. The religious questions included Bible knowledge, basic doctrine (what churches teach salvation through faith? what does the Catholic communion wafer represent? what day does the Jewish Sabbath begin?), along with religious history (who was Martin Luther?), so-called world religions (what faith seeks nirvana?) and First Amendment knowledge.

Of the 32 questions, the average respondent got 16 correct. Within that total, atheists averaged 20.9 correct answers, Jews 20.5, Mormons 20.3, white evangelicals 17.6 and Catholics 14.7. According to the Pew analysis, Mormons “outperform” Jews and atheists on Bible questions, but fall behind on world religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, and on church-state legal questions. Indeed, Jews average only 4.3 correct Bible answers out of seven, compared to the white evangelical average of 5.1 and the Mormon average of nearly 6.

But a footnote is in order here. Jews actually know their own Bible pretty well — 90% knew who Moses was and 83% knew about Abraham almost sacrificing his son (most Christian groups scored between 50% and 60% on that one). It’s on the New Testament that Jews lose points. Only 17% could name all four Gospels; among Christian groups the success rate hovered between 50% and 70%. As for world religions, Jews did better than most in identifying nirvana and Vishnu, but they performed spectacularly well on questions about Ramadan and the Koran, leaving everyone else in the dust.

The most intriguing of the survey’s findings concerns the question that received the fewest correct answers in the entire survey: identifying Maimonides. Only 8% of respondents overall knew he was Jewish. Among Jews, that figure was 57%.

By way of comparison, only 55% of Catholics knew the church teaching that the wafer and wine of communion are not merely symbolic but are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Just 47% of Protestants could identify Martin Luther as the person who inspired the Protestant Reformation.

Granted, recognizing the name Maimonides is not quite the same as reading a page of Talmud. On the other hand, it’s not chopped liver.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at www.forward.com


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