I have a story from several years ago that never fails to amuse and amaze people when I tell it. It was late summer in Tallinn and I was walking home, in no particular hurry, when I got stopped on the street by a trio of young men, carrying Bibles that were scrupulously bookmarked from about halfway into the volume, who asked if I do have a moment for discussion. There aren’t many better ways to spend a nice evening than to have a pleasant conversation with intelligent people, so I was in. For starters, I professed my rather vague idea of finer denominations within the Christian creed and asked myself to be excused if I am unable to tell apart the theological stances of pentecostals from those of anabaptists or presbyterians — and subsequently steered the conversation towards some more general points that would help me to get a sense of why I should opt for the particular congregation of my new acquaintances. Somewhere along that discussion I asked what I thought was a rhetorical question, meant to lead into a discussion on the nature of the Holy Trinity. I asked ‘What is the first commandment?’, expecting a swift and simultaneous response from my three newfound friends, but instead what I got was an awkward silence. As I was standing there, quite dumbstruck and waiting for a response, the senior one of them tried bluff is way out of the situation, saying ‘Well.. we all know that one should not kill, etc.’ At that moment I realized that I had struck gold — that none of my three companions, who had just a moment ago been excited over the prospect to tell me about Christianity, had no idea what does the first commandment say. As it turned out, they even had no idea where to find it in the book they held in their own hands. So we ended up sitting on a sidewalk and reading Exodus 34 together, a first time for my new friends.
I was reminded of this by a story couple of weeks ago that made brief headlines in American media (see NY Times’ take on it here), referring to an independent survey conducted by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public life throughout the United States on the religious knowledge. They asked 32 questions about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism from 3,412 randomly chosen people and the results are very interesting indeed. It shouldn’t perhaps come as a big surprise to anyone that atheists and agnostics scored the highest, with Jews and Mormons not far behind. It is, however, quite telling that Christians of different denominations failed at least half the questions, and the fact that fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify the man who started the Protestant Reformation or that almost half of Catholic respondents had no idea of a fundamental point about the holy communion is nothing short of astonishing. And I am not even going to get started with Hispanic Catholics, who basically performed at the same level as if they had picked the answers randomly. Who needs knowledge if you’ve got faith?
For what it’s worth, I took the short, 15 question version of the survey and got 14 answers right — I failed the last question as it was my first time to heard about the First Great Awakening. To be absolutely candid, I wasn’t 100% sure about the Jewish Sabbath thing, I knew one answer that was definitely wrong, but basically got lucky with a flip between two remaining options. However, it really does escape me how could one get half of the questions wrong there.. Anyway, if you want to dig deeper into results and findings of the survey, click here.