Earlier this month Florida pastor Terry Jones caused an international uproar when he threatened to burn copies of the Koran, Islam's holy book, despite the fact that he'd never read the book and doesn't know what it says.
It's one thing to not fully understand the basic tenets of a different religion. But recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Americans are often woefully ignorant not only of other religions, but of their own faith.
The researchers polled nearly 3,500 Americans and asked them 32 basic questions about world religions, their texts, main figures, and tenets. Most respondents got about half the questions wrong. For example, 45 percent of Catholics polled did not know that the Catholic church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are said to actually and literally become the body and blood of Christ. About as many Americans did not know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.
In fact the poll found that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than religious people. Among religious groups, Jews and Mormons scored highest.
That Americans don't know much about their own faith is hardly news. In one widely-seen video clip, comedian Stephen Colbert interviewed Georgia Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, who co-sponsored a bill to require display of the Ten Commandments in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Colbert asked Westmoreland to name the Ten Commandments.
The Congressman, who wanted to make sure that everyone sees and remembers most famous "top ten" list in the world, struggled to name them: "Um... Don't murder... don't lie...don't steal..." After some awkward silence, having named fewer than one-third of God's commandments, Westmoreland gave up: "Um... I can't name them all." Westmoreland is not alone.
According to a March 2007, USA Today survey revealed that 60 percent of Americans can't name the Ten Commandments.
Another measure of American misunderstanding of religion is how often one hears the phrase, "We should all just get along, all religions basically say the same thing."
Actually, they do not: the world's major religions hold very different - and often fundamentally incompatible - beliefs. Anyone who thinks that Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism reflect essentially identical teachings is demonstrating a profound ignorance of those faiths.
Even the wildly popular "Coexist" bumper sticker, the one that incorporates religious symbols from many religions, runs into a contradiction when applied to the many faiths that proselytize. Peaceful coexistence is unlikely if a devout follower believes both that his is the only true faith and that it is his solemn duty to convert others to that one true faith.
Though many people claim to be religious and have religious faith, it's not clear what, exactly, that means in real-world terms. If a person calls himself or herself a Christian, but does not follow (nor even understand) basic principles of Christianity, what's the point? Anyone can claim to be of any faith they choose, but unless that religion meaningfully informs and influences that person's life, it's hard to see the value in claiming to follow that faith.
Sociologists have long known that religious people are no more honest or trustworthy than the non-religious, and the new poll suggests that atheists and other non-believers are actually better informed about the religious world than the faithful themselves.