A University of Missouri professor says a lack of knowledge about religion may be contributing to recent controversies and conflicts that have made national news.
Debra Mason says religious misunderstanding may have fueled the fire in recent incidents like the proposed mosque near ground zero in New York and a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Quran. She teaches Journalism at the University of Missouri and is also the Director of the Center on Religion and the Professions.
“I think the more we all understand about religion the more we’re able to assess the media that we’re receiving or listening to or participating in,” Mason said.
She cites a recent study by the Pew Research Center that showed very few Americans know the basic facts other religions, and even their own religions. About 75% of respondents called themselves Christians, but only 25% could name the four books of the Gospels. Less than 40% off all respondents knew that Vishnu and Shiva were associated with Hinduism.
“I mean this survey was asking the most basic, simple questions about religion and we still couldn’t answer them,” Mason said.
She believes this lack of knowledge is making religions rhetoric very conflict-focused right now. For example, she says the person behind the proposed mosque near ground zero was a Sufi Muslim, a type of Muslim that is active in inter-faith dialogue. She thinks many people don’t grasp that just like in Christianity, there is a wide breadth of different beliefs under the same religion.
“Yet we don’t seem to understand this about other religions. So that’s one of the difficulties we assume that practitioners of a faith all believe and act the same way and that’s just plain wrong,” Mason said.
The Pew study also found that two-thirds of Americans misunderstand some aspects of the US Constitution, thinking it takes a stronger stance against religion is schools than it really does.
“There is a prohibition against classroom prayer in the schools, we know that. However, there is no prohibition against classes that talk about various world religions, that compare religions,” Mason said.
Mason thinks this is one of the roots of the unawareness among Americans about religions, and in turn could be part of the solution. But she says school districts sometimes avoid religious classes altogether to stave off controversy.
“I think there is a misunderstanding as to what’s allowed but I do also think that these sorts of courses become real ‘hot potatoes’ and so they tend to subject a school district to perhaps some conflict or controversy within the general public. It’s within the general public that this misunderstanding exists,” Mason said.
She says there are also no prohibitions against classes examining religious texts as pieces of literary work. She hopes studies like these prompt efforts at school districts and colleges to address the lack of knowledge about religions.
“But in addition, some people don’t want their children to learn about other faiths. That certainly is a personal decision among families. But as a culture and as a society it behooves us to learn about the diverse faiths that are growing within our own country, and certainly the diverse faiths of the entire world,” Mason said.
The survey also found that American atheists, agnostics knew the most about other faiths, followed by Mormons and Jews.