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Religion Poll Bears Out Jewish Braininess

Though the atheist/agnostics have our number

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In its write-up of the new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll, the New York Times noted that, based on a sampling of over 3400 Americans, Jews are outpaced in their knowledge of world religions (and a few other matters) only by atheist/agnostics. It also noted that, of all the questions asked, the one that the lowest number of respondents answered correctly concerned the great medieval philosopher Maimonides: Only eight percent—and only 57 percent of Jews!—knew, “Was Maimonides Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?” Guys: Have we got a book for you!

Some further digging into the report (which you can download in full here) reveals the Jews (and the Mormons) acquitting themselves very well, which probably has as much to do with socioeconomics as anything else. And as for those atheist/agnostics, well, who do you really think they are?

• Slightly more Mormons (92 percent) than Jews (90 percent) know who Moses is. Ditto Abraham (87 percent to 83 percent) and Job (70 percent to 47 percent).

• More Jews knew that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation (70 percent) than not only Catholics (42 percent, which makes a certain degree of sense) but than Protestants (47 percent)! C’mon, guys! Oh, and Jews scored a rare victory here over the generally impressive atheist/agnostics (68 percent). Which is ironic, given that Luther was a notorious anti-Semite.

• On the two explicitly Jewish questions, we wiped the floor with everyone else. 94 percent of Jews know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday; next highest are the atheists/agnostics (56 percent) and the Mormons (55 percent). As for Maimonides, 57 percent of Jews knew about him, as compared to 19 percent of atheist/agnostics, 10 percent of nothing-in-particulars, and single digits for everyone else.

• We know more about Mormons than everyone but the Mormons. For more on Mormonism, here is a helpful primer.

• We know more about Islam than everyone else, although Muslims were not among the religious groups counted in the poll (which Pew doesn’t appear to explain).

• Jews and Mormons know the most about atheism other than atheist/agnostics; Jews know the most about agnosticism other than atheist/agnostics

• Jews knew the most about societal questions—politics, science, history, and literature—than anyone but, again, those pesky atheist/agnostics.

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans [NYT]
U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey [Pew]
Related: Maimonides [Nextbook Press]

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The fact that atheists and agnostics seem to be better informed than members of any faith is an interesting coincidence, isn’t it?

@ Dave
Perhaps because they have to justify their lack of faith to members of various faith groups :) — and maybe many of them come from Jewish/Mormon backgrounds?

Or perhaps the more you know about matters of religion and faith, the more likely you are to turn away from the unreasonable and misogynistic elements that underlie them.

God bless those atheists. As for the agnostics, I guess I’m not sure… :)

Here’s a thought. Jews have been a minority in so many different cultures and consequently needed to learn the whys and wherefores of diverse religions in order, for one reason, to stay out of harm’s way.

Brian Kaye says:

The results of the survey indicates nothing about Jewish ‘braininess'; Jews have taken responsibility to inform themselves, as I suspect many agnostics, athiests and Mormon’s have, due to a curiousity about those around us, especially those in the majority of the population – we seek knowledge.

Jeff Carpenter says:

Can’t explain for the Mormons, but the other groups have a large proportion of scholars, academic and religious, among their number. The huge numbers of Protestant Christians include a large nominal strain–believers in name only, wthout faith practice or knowledge—as well as a large anti-intellectual strain which disregards any catechism, any systematic theology or philosophy, any credal statements, any liturgy or tradition whatsoever. Assume a similar dynamic for Catholics who respond to tradition and liturgy only, without knowledge of the Bible or of history.
Religious faith has been reduced to vapid therapeutic deism.

Marnieh says:

If I’m reading the data correctly, the entire Mormon/Atheist/Agnostic/Jewish population queried totals NINE people. I’m asking Pew why, as they have a Muslim symbol on the cover of the survey, they don’t include a Muslim tabulation category. Could it be that this includes ONE person?

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

In response to Marnieh:
Actually there were 3.412 people included in this survey- not 9. However, your question about why no muslims were included in the survey is problematic, I agree.

LazerBeam says:

The results of the poll have nothing to do with Jewish braininess, and the author is counseled to avoid such bait-and-switch hyperbole just to draw in more readers. If one seeks evidence of Jewish braininess, the percentage of Nobel Prize winners in science, medicine or physiology, and economics should be considered a valid measure.

So what is the explanation of the results of the poll on religion? Jews value knowledge for its own sake, as well as its successful applications to promoting understanding of how the world works in all of its manifestations, including an understanding of the organizing philosophies and principles of economy, society, and polity, and what motivates people to behave the way they do in economic, social, and political transactions, including the motivations to pre-judge, stereotype, dislike, discriminate, and hate the others in general and Jews in specific. Jews also value empathy, and empathy is nurtured by understanding.

So a much better than average understanding of the basic teachings of the major religions of the world is a logical consequence of and consistent with the basic Jewish values, such as knowledge and empathy, as well as the applications of sociology and psychology to the religious motivations for pro- and anti-Semitism, which is one of our survival mechanisms.

I like whenever you talk about this type of things in your blog. Possibly would you continue doing this particular?


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Religion Poll Bears Out Jewish Braininess

Though the atheist/agnostics have our number

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