What are the fundamentals of our religion and how well do we know them? Interesting questions, even somewhat uncomfortable aren’t they?
The independent Pew Research Institute and its forum on religion and public life recently conducted a telephone survey. It asked 3400 Americans 32 fairly simple questions about the Bible, including Christian and Jewish beliefs and practices. Those who wish to explore it further should peruse it on the Pew Foundation site; The New York Times (September 28, 2010) carried an instructive report by Laurie Goodstein.
The questions weren’t so complex if you were raised in North-American society or in the relevant faith tradition that was under the lens, and they followed the multiple choice format. (I usually think of such quizzes as the multiple guess system.)
Some sample questions pertained to what is or is not in the Ten Commandments; identifying the faith of most Indonesians (answer Islam); naming the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation (only 47% of Protestants knew it was Martin Luther). That it is consistent with rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court, for a public school teacher to read to students from the Bible as an example of literature (the answer is yes, but fewer than 25% respondents knew that). Fully 45% of Catholics were unfamiliar with their own doctrine that the consecrated bread and wine at Communion transubstantiate into the flesh and blood of Christ.
Paradoxically, almost 89 percent or respondents answered correctly that a public school teacher is NOT permitted to lead a class in prayer. Barely better than half (51%) knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon; but an impressively larger number (82%) knew Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic.
As we examine the relative knowledge base of most citizens about religions, keep in mind the current resurgence of political movements that want to run the civic society by fundamentalist and exclusive application of Christian values and practices. Keep your eye on the increasing number of politicians, including our last Republican President (George W. Bush), who emphasize a public display of their religiosity and mix it with matters of policy. Consider the raging public debate on how fundamentally Christian the Founding-Fathers may or may not have been. And would they have supported the Christianizing of this nation? Just look how powerful the Tea party has grown in the last decade. I point these out because this movement has a growing momentum in the political world out there.
Look at the Islamic rigidity that is the hallmark of so many Islamic societies. And keep in mind in the recent elections just two months ago India, the world’s largest functioning democracy, put a political party in power with the core agenda of Hindutva and Hinduization of India’s multi-faith culture and secular fabric.
In summary, the 3400 respondents in the Pew questionnaire were able to correctly answer only about half the questions. A fifty percent success rate would not even earn a C- in any half way decent school or university. More importantly, many respondents erred on questions on their own faith.
What caught my eye was that the consistently high scorers were agnostics and atheists, followed by two minority faiths: Jews and Mormons. Isn’t that absolutely stunning? Out of a total of 32 questions, atheists or agnostics answered an average of 21 correctly; while Black Protestants had a correct rate of 13.4 and Hispanic Catholics at 11.6 led the rear.
I am not here arguing for the virtues of agnosticism or atheism. Instead this tells me that people, even if they consciously and actively turn away from religious belief of any kind, may tend to remain involved in a level of self-study, exploration and reflection.
Wouldn’t you say that some reflection is better than none? The choice “none” would indicate the way of someone who outwardly may appear dedicated to religion as a way of life and yet their inner core remains untouched and unexamined. Wouldn’t religion then become diminished to rites, observances, empty rituals and an hour or so in the preferred place of worship on Sundays? These practices then do not really touch one’s life, much less define it.
Two results appeared significant: First, that of the difficult questions on core religious values of their own faith the most “correct” answers came from Mormons and White evangelical Protestants. Here “right or wrong” answers mean only that the responses were or were not consistent with the official handbook or catechism of that particular religion. Secondly, on questions about other world religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, the most correct answers came from atheists and Jews.
In summary it seems that atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons seemed to have done better than most mainstream Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Perhaps it is so because they are minorities, and that means more interaction with others who are unlike them; hence the need and the opportunity to learn about neighbors who are not of their religions. Yes, Mormons proselytize and Jews don’t at all.
I know Sikhs, particularly in the Diaspora, often despair that our non-Sikh neighbors know so little of our faith despite our presence in this country for over a hundred years, but I would turn the question around: How well do we know our Jewish and Christian neighbors and their religions?
At the same time the findings of the survey are both startling as well as disappointing. I would expect people to be more in touch with the fundamentals of their own beliefs and practices.
It is in this context that I look with mixed feelings at our burgeoning Sikh presence in North America over the years that I have been here. There was almost no Sikh community, except in Southern California, when I landed in America almost 55 years ago. Ergo, there was no way to sidestep the interactions with non-Sikhs at work or play and their pointed but curious questions. So the few Sikhs learned the fundamentals of their faith — who we are what we are and why we are the way we are. Over the years Sikh communities have grown exponentially; now there is hardly a town in the United States and Canada that does not have a vibrant Sikh community and even a gurduara or two.
The advantage of being a small miniscule community of Sikhs – like a drop in a sea of non-Sikhs – was the inevitable interaction with others; the disadvantage of such reality was the lack of a Sikh community and the inevitable sense of isolation that was pervasive at times.
The inevitable question hinges on how we Sikhs would do if facing a questionnaire on our own faith, Sikhism, and the beliefs of our neighbors. Would we do any better?
Surprisingly, we have a somewhat partial but painful answer.
This was almost 20 years ago when some young Sikhs were tinkering with the idea of forming the Sikh Coalition that has now evolved into a wonderful Sikh advocacy organization. This was also before there was a Sikh Research Institute (SRI) with the basic agenda of teaching the rudiments of Sikhi to the young and old alike. Some young hopefuls had come up with the idea of working productively with gurdwaras on some general educational endeavors in Sikhi.
A few of these young Sikhs prepared a brief questionnaire on some fundamentals of Sikh history. Believe me the questions were not complex. I remember one that challenged the respondents to name the sixth, seventh and eighth Gurus in the correct sequence.
We invited the Management Committee and Trustees of the premier gurdwara in our locality for a limited premiere of the project and asked them to take the quiz confidentially.
A prominent trustee took a look at the questions and turned several shades of the spectrum. This, he said, must not be done. Why? Because mistakes would be made that would seriously demean and diminish the ‘image’ of gurdwara leaders. It is not to be permitted. He was not at all abashed to point out that questions, like the one I referred to above, were just too difficult.
He was absolutely not amused when I pointed out that the former U.S. President, Jimmy Carter, taught Sunday School at his church from age 16 on and even through the years of his presidency. We salvaged the proceedings but the idea of such continuing education in a gurdwara was immediately rendered stillborn or, should I say, aborted.
But to a hard-headed man like me hope springs eternal. Recently I was at an educational function for the SRI. Many young people of high school and college age were in attendance. The conversation turned to the state of our gurdwaras and I recounted the above story. Two young guys were so excited about the possibility that they prepared a brief questionnaire for their massive multi-million dollars gurdwara in California and e-mailed it to me for my input and comments.
The onus is now on me. I have to polish it and render it somewhat harmless, if not sterile, for the fragile egos of the big honchos at the gurdwaras. And yet it must be comprehensive enough to gauge the community information base on Sikhi.
I would love to see how it flies but am anxious that these well meaning young people are not excoriated in return. Squelching them would be easy but this is not the “appreciation” they need or deserve.
What can I say? When ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise.