Losing our religion

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals some alarming results about religious knowledge in the US.

Pastor Terry Jones
Religious knowledge and understanding is key to improving cultural relations in America [Getty]

Say Amen!

Well, maybe not so much. This week the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a poll showing that Americans arguably know less about various world religions than they do about who won the disco ball on the last season of Dancing With the Stars. This shouldn’t be hugely surprising.

We’re Americans, after all, and not knowing stuff is as American as apple pie. Famed historian Richard Hofstadter wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book in 1964 entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and it is likely this strain of our historical DNA that is responsible for such phenomena as Snooki getting a book contract and Glenn Beck having an online university.

But, before you judge too harshly, it’s important to remember that this hasn’t exactly been a banner decade in the United States. Median household income has declined by almost $1,000 over the past decade once adjusted for inflation, health care costs continue to soar as we wait years for promised health care reforms to kick in (and others never made it), and the US is embroiled in foreign entanglements in what often seems like a dizzying array of places. So you can excuse people for having other things on their mind, than say the theological underpinnings of Jainism.

The problem, however, is that those foreign entanglements have some religious undertones that would be good to understand, and all too often demagogues at home in the US take advantage of the fact that many of us don’t.

So does it really matter that only 47% of Americans know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist and a paltry 38% are aware that Shiva and Vishnu belong to the Hindu tradition? How about only 54% of Americans know that The Quran is the Islamic holy book, or that only 27% know that most people in Indonesia are Muslim? Well, I won’t lie and say it wouldn’t be nice if we knew somewhat more about Arjuna than the Octomom.

But the real danger, of course, is that the US is involved in conflagrations with those predominantly of a different religion, including terrorists who falsely interpret their religion to justify heinous acts—all of which leads American opportunists of all stripes to use these distinctions to denigrate others and generalise about the ‘Other.’ Whether it’s nihilists cheering for random bombings abroad, or an at-the-time-unknown Pastor named Terry Jones, who has a Wyatt-Earp-moustache fetish and likes to threaten to hold Quran burnings, how better to clear out your sinuses while sowing worldwide division?

These people are all preying on fear of the unknown, leading to hatred, where none would otherwise exist. And as the great Shirley MacLaine once said, “fear makes strangers of people who would be friends.”

How else could Pastor Jones, who used Mel Gibson’s movie “Braveheart” as an inspiration to preach his anti-Islamic mumbo jumbo—in between roaming the Dove World Outreach Centre compound in Gainesville, Florida porting a pistol on his hip—get anyone listen to a single word of his inglorious claptrap? I don’t think it’s going too far to say that if God spent a moment listening to anything this meandering clown had to say, he himself would probably come to doubt Intelligent Design.

That men like this can get in front of some very big microphones will always make ignorance about other religions dangerous in the world we live in today. Not to mention the fact that religion has probably been the number one cause of war since the Dinosaurs went bye-bye. So what is the answer?

Obviously, people need to be better educated, as knowledge is the best antidote to the poison spread by cranks and charlatans; this includes not just Americans, but people around the world. You must know some of these people, who believe conspiracy theories about Jews’ being warned about 9/11 ahead of time, or Buddhists planning the Chinese invasion of Tibet, to gain world sympathy for their millennium of meditation-enhanced domination. Let us not forget those who think The Omen is an accurate depiction of how Satan’s return is right around the corner.

So what about the US? Obviously we need to edify our students through our schools. We need to teach our citizens the truth through a media that remembers that it’s supposed to educate and not just titillate. The responsibility rests with all of us to do this, day in and day out, from the President on down, to change opinions over the long-term by making sure that fact replaces fiction.

As Charlie Brown once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’” He might still fall for the Lucy-pulling-away-the-football trick, but on this one, the kid’s spot on.

Cliff Schecter is the President of Libertas, LLC, a progressive public relations firm, the author of the 2008 bestseller The Real McCain, and a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.

Follow Cliff Schecter On Twitter: @Cliffschecter

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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