I have never bought into the widely held view that Americans are a deeply religious people. What I have believed is that many Americans feel an obligation -- whether out of spirituality or peer pressure, or perhaps some of both -- to be seen in church every Sunday, say Grace at the dinner table and lead virtuous lives, at least in public.
How else to explain a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that reveals that while Americans may seem to be deeply religious, they are deeply ignorant about religion. So ignorant that on average people who took the survey answered only half the questions correctly, and many got wrong even easy questions about their own faith.
Not surprisingly, those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, and two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons.
Pew said the results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences, and methinks that reflects the fact that members of all four groups arrived at or kept their faith -- or lack of -- based on having the kind of religious knowledge that many mainstreamers apparently do not.
Most of the survey questions were multiple choice, and included: Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Mother Teresa?
The timing of the survey is exquisite, coming as it does in an era when religion and politics -- that is to say conservative and right-wing politics -- are inextricably linked as they never have before, and the religious right is a force to be reckoned with.
And as the survey indirectly reveals, an ignorant force at that. After all, how can one worshipfully embrace the teachings of Jesus, who was tortured to death, and support the torture enabled and carried out during the Bush Era?
The survey also reveals rampant confusion about what constitutes reading and what constitutes preaching.
Some 89 percent of respondents who were asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer correctly answered no.
But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature, let alone that teachers are permitted to offer classes comparing the world's religions.
About those religions: Members of mainstream faiths tended to flub questions about religions like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, while the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews.