Religious illiteracy - new and not so new

By Martin E. Marty
October 4, 2010

The least surprising surprise — but the most commented-upon — in the 'US Religious Knowledge Survey' issued by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently, was the one picked up at once by Laurie Goodstein in The New York Times.

As polls showed that there was not much 'Religious Knowledge' on hand, she stressed, “Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons.”

Why was anyone surprised? Those who grow up in a faith-community take their religion for granted; its stories and teachings are like the wall-paper in their mental furnished apartments. Those rejecting such spiritual housing tend to take regular looks back to see what they rejected, or need information for debating points should they challenge the half-faithful.

The Pew poll-takers wisely drew on the knowledge of Stephen Prothero, whose book Religious Literacy showed that religious illiteracy has had a long run in religious America.

Should we be so deeply shocked at this new Pew set of findings? Hardly. In 1955 Will Herberg’s Protestant-Catholic-Jew, the most quoted account of religion in our most religiously-touted modern decade, produced data that anticipates and parallels the new findings.

I recently had occasion to revisit a book from that era by (my then PhD co-advisor) Daniel J. Boorstin, later Librarian of Congress. His The Genius of American Politics came out when we were trying to make sense of the religious scene in the Eisenhower years, Herberg’s prime.

At chapter length he noticed that “Perhaps never before in history has a people talked so much and said so little about its basic beliefs.” He gave many illustrations of practices in the then-as-now Overclothed Public Square.

The US Supreme Court rulings against school prayer and devotional Bible reading had not yet come down, but never mind, when religious propagation and worship was still allowed and sometimes practised in public schools and other such institutions, 'we' were illiterate. There was no golden age, no time of 'good old days.'

Exceptions showed up then as now. What did help inform the literate minority? The informed learned in institutions — church, parochial school, Sunday school, and, most importantly, homes — which taught and nurtured a then-less-distracted minority of children and citizens in general. Some of these survive, get revitalised, and run against the trends.

Back then, we surmise, most citizens knew even less than they do now about other religions than their own or others to be found in the American majority. But even their own faiths, rich in stories, teachings, doctrines, and ethical injunctions, were, and often are, taken for granted.

The 'enemies' of American religion, at least in matters of knowledge, are not agnosticism or atheism but indifference, 'coasting', taking the drama of faith(s) for granted.

The leaders of religious institutions who care — parents, professors, ethicists — and who contend that the expression of faith cannot well be confined to personal experience, individual 'contentless spirituality' have their work cut out for them.

The new Pew survey could be a wake-up call — or the occasion for multitudes to push the 'snooze' button once again.


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).

Laurie Goodstein, 'Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans,' The New York Times, September 28, 2010.

Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).

Stephen Prothero, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - and Doesn't (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007).

'US Religious Knowledge Survey,' The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 28 September 2010.


(c) Martin E. Marty The author is a leading US commentator on religion - and the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

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