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We Didn't Flunk the Religion Test -- 4 Important Truths About Americans and God

The headlines this week made bold pronouncement: “Americans Don’t Know Much About Religion.” “Atheists Know More About Religion Than Believers.” “Basic Religious Test Stumps Most Americans.”

Really? Did these writers read the survey these articles were based on? The Pew Forum survey on religion in America contained a number of revelations, but few were covered in the initial round of articles. After examining the actual results, here are four important truths about Americans and God:

1. Americans know more about religion than almost any other topic.

To begin, the 3,412 people polled for this study are not exactly students of history. The first substantive question respondents were asked was, “Can you tell me the name of the vice president of the United States?” Only 59% knew the correct answer. The same minimal number knew what antibiotics do, and an even smaller percentage could correctly name the New Deal as the signature program of Franklin Roosevelt. So as a baseline: These people were not very knowledgeable about the world in general.

By contrast, their answers about religion seemed downright worthy of the Nobel Prize. Three-quarters knew the Jewish Sabbath falls on Saturday; 68% knew the Constitution forbids the establishment of religion; 63% knew the first book of the Bible is Genesis; and the same number who knew Joe Biden knew the Koran is the holy book of Islam. Americans are religious savants.

2. The most popular religious figure in America is Moses

In my book, "America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America," I explore how Moses became the defining figure of American history. The pilgrims quoted his story; Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed he be on the U.S. seal; the Statue of Liberty and Superman were modeled on him; every American president from Washington to Lincoln to Reagan was shaped by his story.

This Pew survey proves that Americans’ love affair with the superhero of the Bible continues. Quizzed about various figures from the Bible – Jesus, Job, Moses, and Abraham – more Americans knew about Moses than any other. And asked about a number of biblical stories, including the Gospels, Americans knew more about the Ten Commandments than these other stories. Moses is the most beloved religious figure in America today.

3. Believers still dominate in America; atheists are still rare.

Despite a decade in which vocal non-believers have driven the national conversation about faith, the number of atheists is still minuscule in America. Only 6% of respondents said they don’t believe in God, with another 1% saying they didn’t know. By contrast, 69% said they were absolutely certain God exists, and another 17% said they were fairly certain.

Yet shooting down another stereotype, these believers are not particularly dogmatic. Only a third said the Bible should be taken literally, and asked how often they attend religious services, by far the largest tally said a few times a year, if at all. Americans are largely casual, non-ideological, benign believers.

4. Americans know as much about other religions as they know about their own.

It was common to read this survey as saying Americans are ignorant about other faiths, and there is evidence to support this argument. Only 38% knew Vishnu and Shiva were central figures in Hinduism. Only 36% knew nirvana is a state of being free from suffering and is an aim of Buddhism. Only 27% knew Indonesia contains mostly Muslims. But since when is the religious makeup of Jakarta the standard for religious literacy?

Consider these rival figures: Two-thirds knew India is predominantly Hindu. Seven in ten knew Pakistan is predominantly Muslim. Half knew the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and 82% knew Mother Teresa was Catholic. Amazingly, more knew Ramadan is the holy month of Islam than knew who wrote "Moby Dick." All in all, Americans score fairly well on their religious knowledge of the rest of the world.

For decades, studies have shown that Americans lack basic knowledge of math, science, and history. The real headline coming out of this week’s survey on faith in America is that our knowledge of religion is not as bad as other subjects, and is arguably stronger. 

Considering that we are engaged in two wars in Muslim countries in the Middle East, as well as an economic transformation that brings us into closer business ties with Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucianists across Asia, it’s safe to say that our awareness of different religious traditions – and ability to coexist with them – may become a key national security advantage in years to come.

Bruce Feiler is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including "Walking the Bible," "Abraham," and "Where God Was Born.' His book "America’s Prophet: How the Story of Moses Shaped America" has just been released in paperback. For more information, please visit www.brucefeiler.com.

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