What Should Americans Know About Each Others’ Faiths?


(OPINION) America’s three biggest hamburger chains have 27,000 local outlets.

The three biggest of America’s 2,800 or so religious denominations alone have 97,000 local congregations.

That is to simply remind readers that faiths retain powerful impact in society despite the increase of people with no religious affiliation and other secular inroads.

Relations among major faiths feel especially pertinent in 2023, since Islam’s holy month of Ramadan with concluding Eid festival overlaps Jewish Passover and the two Easter dates observed by Christians.

Zeenat Rahman, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, thinks American religion is “increasingly polarizing” and yet at the same time is “essential to rebuilding a strong civil society,” which means Americans “need a basic understanding of the faith of others.”

So, in practice what do people know about other major world religions? What should they know?

Those are important questions for regional or national journalists to explore via interviewing, plus polling if your medium has the money. Or consider commissioning brief articles where religious leaders sum up the basics they think others should know about their faiths and — especially helpful — what’s often misunderstood.

How about books? Stephen Wylen accepted this sort of challenge with his self-published “You Should Know This: A Rabbi Explains Christianity to Jews.” For years now, Terry Mattingly has also been recommending this classic by religion-beat veteran Mark Pinsky: “A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.”

Some standard book publisher should put together a nonsectarian and up-to-date anthology in which experts would depict their own religions for outsiders, including the main internal branches and variants.

Political scientist (and GetReligion contributor) Ryan Burge recently took up these matters, in a Religion News Service analysis, by reexamining 2019 interfaith data from the ubiquitous Pew Research Center.

Asked about their own personal awareness of various faith groups, only a 48% minority of Pew’s respondents said they knew “some” or “a lot” about Muslims, a sobering statistic considering the power and controversy with this huge faith. Numbers were even lower regarding Buddhists and Hindus. There was slim 55% awareness about the ever-expanding “Mormons,” who prefer to be called Latter-day Saints, compared with a hefty 68% for atheists.

There’ve been many surveys over the years showing Americans’ embarrassing ignorance. Pew found that only 58% knew the familiar “do unto others” teaching is not one of the Ten Commandments, barely half (51%) correctly identified the man who preached the revered “Sermon on the Mount” (that would be Jesus), and only a dismal 24% could correctly identify Rosh Hashanah (Jews’ New Year observance). Moses as leader of Israel’s biblical exodus from Egypt fared much better, at 79%.

It’s no surprise that Pew found religious knowledge increased with more education and especially among those who’d taken a course on world religions. Says Burge, “There is clear and measurable evidence that these courses have long-term impact on knowledge about faith traditions.”

Such coursework need not be limited to the college level. In Abington v. Schempp (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed ceremonial prayers and Bible recitations in public schools. However, the 8-1 decision also stated this:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

In theory, families could fill the gap, but that’s all too rare. Presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s parents, who are followers of minority Sikhism, were the only immigrants from India in Bamberg, South Carolina (population 3,000) and shrewdly had her visit local churches to learn about the dominant Christian culture.

Religious day schools and religious congregations naturally focus on their own faith communities. Unfortunately, few public schools have followed the Supreme Court’s common-sense guidance on this even though, fortunately, there’s a well-balanced academic textbook about the Bible with interfaith input.

The Guy welcomes comments on what would be a good equivalent text on comparative world religions.

Final observation: Sometimes familiarity breeds not contempt but at least wariness, rather than enhancing social harmony. Another Pew survey, issued March 15, found that Jews are Americans’ highest-regarded faith group, with only 6% harboring “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable views toward them. The heavily publicized “evangelical” Christians had the lowest regard, with 27% holding unfavorable attitudes.

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