Much wailing and gnashing of teeth followed the recent release of the Pew Forum's survey of Americans' religious knowledge. The news that, on average, most of us know only half the answers to questions on the Bible, world religions and religion in civic life reveals (pick one) a lax commitment to diversity; a blind spot in religious education; our fear (or at least our willful ignorance) of people not like ourselves; or yet another failure of the public school system.
But really, how important is it to know that Jonathan Edwards was an 18th-century revivalist or that nirvana is the Buddhist experience of freedom from suffering? The focus on factoids obscures a central challenge of the 21st century: negotiating the absolute conflict of multiple religious absolutes.
That's a hard lesson for many Americans, whose deepest religious value is a laissez-faire tolerance for religious difference -- except when those differences threaten the small-"c" conservative status quo, as Muslims, Mormons and some gay Christians can attest. But sociologists say the trend overall, and especially among the young, is to live and let live. In "American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us," authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell call that the "Aunt Susan effect." Aunt Susan may be a lesbian, Sufi or atheist, but her innate goodness makes it hard to believe she'll spend an eternity in hell.
"You know that your faith says ... she's not going to heaven, but I mean come on," Putnam recently told NPR. "[It's] Aunt Susan, you know, and if anybody's going to heaven it's Aunt Susan. So every American is sort of caught in this dilemma, that their theology tells them one things, but their personal experience tells them to be more tolerant."
The authors say increased tolerance may explain why so many Americans claim no religious affiliation. According to Putnam and Campbell, a growing number of young people are opting out of church, enacting a "quiet backlash" against the increasing identification between conservative religion and the Republican Party. The number of "nones," as the unaffiliated are called, used to hover around 5 percent of the population. Now between 35 and 40 percent of younger Americans say belong to this group.
"American Grace" looks to be a treasure trove for coverage on religion and American life. Among its findings are that young people are more opposed to abortion than their families but more accepting of gay marriage; that Jews are the most broadly popular religious group in America today; and that personal interfaith ties are growing. All these developments sound much more promising for intelligent reporting than the river of recent laments about religious illiteracy.
In fact what's most vexing about Americans' religious illiteracy barely made headlines. Armed only with our ignorance, are we ready for a world that daily manifests the absolute conflict of multiple religious absolutes? Writers like Graham Fuller and Eliza Griswold argue that religion is a side-show for geopolitical issues ranging from water rights to territorial claims -- but tell that to Hindus and Muslims in Northern India or to equally angry Jews, Christians and Buddhists around the world. Even if cynical leaders do use religion to manipulate the masses, it's critical to understand why it catches and compels so many people. Knowing a bit of theology and religious history is good a first step.
Then again, it could be that Americans don't have time to learn about other people's religions because they are too busy studying their own. I don't mean the old faiths like Judaism or
Christianity. I'm referring to the new ones: Apple, Converse and Juicy. Researchers at Duke, New York University and Tel Aviv University found that brands provide the same sense of self-worth that religions do. Folks who won't wear Jesus' cross may find contentment sporting Abercrombie's moose. Could it be that religious leaders who call American consumerism the poisoned fruit of our secular democracy are onto something?
The deep connections between conservative religion, politics and economics currently play out in congressional campaigns in Delaware, Nevada, New York and Alaska. But rather than untangle the ideological skeins, journalists are content to simply handicap these races.
I doubt PBS' new series "God in America" will do much exploration of this avenue when it airs this week. Rather, the six-hour special looks to be a crash course on American religious history. With swelling music, lush visuals and historical re-enactments, the producers seem to be celebrating both the majesty of American religious diversity and the mystery of our abiding religiosity. "It's all good" is the underlying message. But what's needed is not another romantic narrative about American religion and politics. Instead we need solid journalism that informs us about our messy world, its conflicting faiths and our own responsibility to facts on the ground -- if we can stop obsessing about the brands on our chests.