Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the Need To Know More

I took the Pew U.S. Religious Knowledge quiz and scored a perfect 15/15. What can I say? I'm good at standardized tests. I'm also Jewish, and the Tribe (along with atheists/agnostics and Mormons) apparently outperformed the field on this thing.

Matt Yglesias and Jamelle Bouie attribute this to the hypothesis that minorities simply need a working knowledge of the majority as a "survival skill":
All that said, let me speculate a bit. To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority. Put another way, there’s a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.

Ilya Somin isn't sure. He says that, were this the case, we'd expect the primary advantage of these groups over Christians to be regarding questions about Christianity. But while we do, in fact, hold a slight advantage in that category, the area we really clean up in is questions about "world religions" (Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism), etc.. He says this is indicative that it is great "cosmopolitanism" amongst these religious groups that accounts for the difference.

But I think Somin's test is ill-conceived. Aside from the fact that I can think of at least a few reasons why knowledge of certain "world religions" would fall in the "survival skill" category for Jews, Atheists, and Mormons, the baseline expectation would be that each group should do well in their own category and poorly in all the others. For the Bouie/Yglesias hypothesis to hold, Jews don't have to outperform Christians on Christianity -- they only need to be close to them so as to demonstrate they've attained a working knowledge of the group. The point isn't that Jews know more about Christianity than Christians (though apparently we do), it's that Jews know more about Christianity than Christians know about Jews.

Admittedly, this is somewhat difficult to test, because a lot of the questions are overlapping of Judaism and Christianity -- the only question I recall that is specific to Jews asks when our Sabbath starts (Friday, Saturday, or Sunday). It would be interesting to see if Christians did as well on that questions as Jews did on specifically-Christian questions (e.g., who founded the Protestant Reformation or what Catholic views on transubstantiation are).

But in any event, I think the results still, on face, bear out the hypothesis rather well. When you're a small, vulnerable minority, you simply have to be curious about the world around you. When you're the biggest fish in the pond, you don't. Cosmopolitanism is a survival skill.


N. Friedman said...

I take issue with several of the questions, which I think are misleading.

First, there is the question about when the Jewish Sabbath begins. The answer given by the survey, which is based on a Christian interpretation of Judaism, is Friday but, in fact, that is incorrect. Judaism, after all, posits that the Sabbath begins on Saturday, which itself begins at sundown on what Christians named Friday but which, in Judaism, is Saturday. So, a knowledgeable Jew could very likely get this question wrong.

Also, the question about the Protestant reformation, where the survey answer is Luther - who, in fact, was the first of the great Protestant reformers - could, as the question is asked, be answered with John Wesley, since his actions and writings were clearly inspirational and he clearly was a Protestant. The question should have asked about the origins, not who inspired the Protestant Reformation, for which there are many such inspiring souls including Wesley.

The question about Nirvana is also misleading, because Nirvana is central to both Buddhism and Hinduism. One finds this correct explanation on the Internet:

Nirvana is the supreme state free from suffering and individual existence. It is a state often referred to as "self realization" or "God realization". It’s the ultimate religious goal of all Hindus. The attainment of nirvana breaks the otherwise endless rebirth cycle of transmigration. Hindus call this nirvana "eternal bliss". However, no one can describe in words what nirvana is. It can only be experienced directly.

Which is to say, I take the survey to be less enlightening about the knowledge of Americans than you do. For what it is worth, I got 14/15, having no idea how one could choose between Buddhism and Hinduism, since it is central to both religions.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post.

This link seems to give some of the data you are interested in:

What I find interesting is that the Agnostic/Atheist, Jewish, Mormon group consistently scored in the top. There is only one category of questions (Bible) where any one of those three groups was out of the top 4 -- and in that case it was 4/5 (depending on how you deal with the tie for third).

This also mapped onto the general knowledge section. That leads me to wonder if the correlation is more closely related to the possibility that individuals that are less educated generally are more likely to identify as either Protestant or Catholic (or nothing in particular, which did not score well in most categories).

This isn't to say that Protestantism and Catholicism don't value education, but rather, as the more dominant cultural institutions, more individuals will be apt to self-identify as such even if they may not have strong ties to those particular belief systems. Because of the minority status of the A/J/M block, it is more likely that only individuals actively engaged in that non/belief practice would self identify as such.

A crass way of putting it is that better educated people will self-identify with a belief system they are actually strongly tied to, where as less educated individuals will be more likely to self-identify with the dominate institutions in a society. This will lead to minority groups having a better educated than average population self-identifying as members.

joe said...

I aced it, but calling it a religious knowledge test is fairly misleading. Two were purely legal questions about Supreme Court jurisprudence. And Luther and Edwards aren't like saints under Protestantism or anything (except under sainthood the "everyone in the church is a saint" clause)--knowledge about their lives is not a part of worship, they themselves are not in the core religious texts. So those are historical questions about religious figures; calling them religious questions is a gotcha survey technique.

Personally, I don't attribute my own score of 15 here to my minority views meaning I need to adapt to get along. As an American, certainly, knowing about Buddhism and Islam is just not something I need in any way to get by in society. I happen to know what Ramadan is and when the Sabbath starts because I read the news and those are bits of knowledge that find themselves in various articles. I know what nirvana is because I clicked the link during a Wikipedia crawl. So ultimately, I attribute my score to just plain being educated, not sure if that's the same as being "cosmopolitan" or not. And while those can be a survival skill, in any case I think there are plenty of religious minorities who don't hold much of a "knowledge is power" philosophy. So generalizing it as a necessary survival skill is questionable--there's no "one way" to adapt/evolve.

Joe said...

sad, I only got 14. I guess your commenters HAVE gotten dumber.

Jack said...

Some other hypotheses:

1. People learn the religious beliefs of people they meet. Most Jews and atheists know Christians. Many Christians don't know Jews or atheists.

2. Some varieties of religious education emphasize learning world religions more than others. Perhaps this is the case with Judaism and LDS.

3. Atheists predominantly weren't raised that way. Most were raised in some tradition and left that tradition because they learned more about it and other religions. Many atheists have reported that the key to their disbelief was realizing how arbitrary their inherited beliefs were given the plethora of world religions.

4. Atheism/Judaism correlate with some other predictor of cosmopolitanism that the study didn't control for (urban-rural, college atmosphere, openness to new experiences, etc.)

I'm liking 1 and 4.

Aside: How would Pew classify a Jewish atheist?

Also, everyone seems to be focusing on what religious minorities know and ignoring what the majorities don't know. But Americans are once again shown to know shockingly little. All that talk about Koran burning and still only 54% know what the Koran is.

58% of evangelicals believe Jesus will return in the next 40 years. Only 28% of them know that their religion promises salvation through faith alone. Something is wrong here.

Anonymous and joe,

The effect of religious minorities scoring higher on the test persists even once we control for education (and race, gender, region).

N. Friedman,

Seeing as John Wesley lived roughly 100 years after the protestant reformation is considered to have ended it is hard to see how he could have inspired it. Though I am open to a metaphysics that includes backwards causation.

N. Friedman said...


Not to beat a drum too much for John Wesley, the question was not about the origins of the you are treating the Protestant Reformation as solely a political event. However, you might be interested to know that Wesley is commonly considered a figure of the Protestant Reformation, when understood as a religious matter. My suggestion is that you look at the great many scholarly and other such websites that address the issue from that perspective and you will see that I am correct.

You will find him listed as a figure of the Protestant Reformation. That is the case, for example, in the online Catholic Encyclopedia (here), and on this list of Protestant Reformers, where he is listed in a chart under this statement: "This chart provides basic facts on notable reformers and leaders in the Protestant Reformation."

I think that you are confusing religion with politics. In politics, the Treaty of Westphalia is commonly denoted to be the end of the Reformation because it, in theory, ended the religious wars that were, up to then, dominating Europe. But, the Protestant Reformation continued as a religious phenomena for some time. And, in that context, Wesley was a major figure.

joe said...

Philosophical aside: If a person does not know what his religion "actually promises," is that his "actual" religion, or does his personal belief in a salvation through works (for Evangelicals) or symbolic transubstantiation (for Catholics) or that Joseph Smith was actually a creepy guy (for Mormons) make his belief system unique?

Also, Jack, isn't the belief that the end is nigh a feature of modern Evangelism rather than a bug?

N. Friedman said...


I think you have made a good point. If one knows little about one's own faith, how does that person claim to believe in that faith? I think you need to distinguish between not knowing the fine details and not knowing much at all. Most people, I suspect, know very little, beyond generalities.

Islam, you will note, allows anyone who believes in the unity of Allah and that Mohammad is his prophet to consider him or herself a Muslim. That is a comparatively helpful notion for Islam, one which has, apart from the splits in the religion's early centuries, helped keep the peace. Christians, by contrast, had splits early on but suppressed them, requiring considerable agreement on dogma until the time of the Reformation, where a broader definition, modeled, mutatis mutandis, on that used by the Muslims, might have saved a lot of lives. Nowadays, unfortunately, Muslims (i.e., not all Muslims, but enough) have revived the takfiri doctrine with a vengeance - a problem that menaced the religion in its early centuries -, whereby insufficiently devout Muslims are persecuted and killed by the millions, thus far.

Most Jews know something general about Judaism. My bet is that few Orthodox Jews know all 613 commandments but most, I bet, know the most important of them. Reform Jews reject most of the commandments in favor of a more, live and let live, Islamic approach, with little required knowledge to continue being called Jewish.

joe said...

If one knows little about one's own faith, how does that person claim to believe in that faith?

There's another way to look at it, though... call it a democratic approach. If most Evangelicals actually believe in a mix of faith/works, how important is the official doctrine? Should something honored more in the breach be labeled the "true" version of the faith. If not, then the whole quiz is just trivia, which may be a measure of "cosmopolatinism," but doesn't seem like a direct test of useful knowledge. I'd say it's arguably more important to know how my neighbors actually think, than how a preacher with a book says they should think. And I tend to believe the number of pre-wedlock conceptions in the rural U.S. bears that out.

N. Friedman said...


Mary McCarthy once wrote (or, maybe, said) something to the effect that church gave her a warm feeling inside - one that comes from familiarity with surroundings, with ritual, etc. I think that is what most people get and it is why they align with a particular denomination - that, and the fact that their parents did something similar.

As for what people do, I agree with your comment about the pregnant rural girls. However, that is only part of what people do. Large numbers of people attend Church and other places of worship. That is also part of what the do and helps form what they think. So, I think you are being too narrow in understanding the matter, at least a little bit.

joe said...

Sure, going to church is part of the practical reality of their existence. And the little-known theological points can manifest themselves in big ways. A doctrine of faith over works probably informs missionary zeal, rapture theology, etc. But those are observable practices in and of themselves.

chingona said...

Reform Jews reject most of the commandments in favor of a more, live and let live, Islamic approach, with little required knowledge to continue being called Jewish.

I think this is backwards. I mean, yes, Orthodox Jews on average have more intensive Jewish education - they pretty much need to to keep track of everything they have to do - but the Orthodox view is that you are Jewish if your mother was Jewish, regardless of self-identification, level of practice, level of education, whatever.

Many Orthodox Jews would consider anyone who has an identifiably Jewish ancestor on the maternal side to be Jewish, even if they grew up Episcopalian, while having an extensive Jewish education and keeping kosher and Shabbat would be inadequate if you don't have the requisite pedigree.

Reform Judaism would not consider that person Jewish. You need at least some minimal level of engagement and identification with Judaism to be Jewish.

And Reform Jews don't "reject" commandments. They allow personal autonomy in choosing which ritual mitzvot to follow. All the ethical commandments are obligatory.

N. Friedman said...


Thank you for your interesting comment.

I think you confuse the Judaism with being a Jew. Spinoza's mother was Jewish. He, however, was excommunicated and ceased being Jewish. However, he did not cease being a Jew, which is a different thing.

As for the use of the word "reject," you are correct that my word choice could have been better. However, it is close enough, given that few Reform Jews follow the laws that Orthodox Jews follow. Most Reform Jews I know eat shrimp and lobster. Most eat cheese burgers. Married Reform Jews share the bed of their spouses, during menstruation periods and otherwise. So, while the word "reject" sounds harsh, it is not wholly inaccurate, as it reflect the reality of what Reform Jews generally do.

chingona said...

You just made up that distinction between Jewish and a Jew.

N. Friedman said...


Well, I like to be original. However, I note that there are Jews who do not believe in Judaism. They are Jews but they do not follow the Jewish religion. And, to follow the Jewish religion, there really are things you must believe. Otherwise, there would be no basis for excommunication - yet, Spinoza, among others, was excommunicated.