Religion Today

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

'Tis the Season for Prophecy

Election time is filled with prophecy. Voters try to predict what the candidates will do if elected. Candidates predict the dastardly things their opponents will do if elected. Pundits "read the tea leaves" to predict who will get elected and what the parties will do if the balance of power shifts or does not shift. Pollsters talk to thousands of people to predict what will happen.

Ironically, while candidates and supporters work long and hard to impact the future, the media seem more obsessed with prophesying it. They want to predict the future, to tell us what will happen. It almost seems that reporting on the present (or heaven forbid, the past) is worthwhile only if it enables one to foretell the future.

But isn't there a difference between prophecy and prediction? Well, perhaps. Prophecy rightly speaking is the delivery of messages between a god and human beings; most prominently from God to humans. Prediction, by contrast, is simply people saying things about the future, perhaps basing it on actions in the past or just wishful thinking. Besides, many people would say, prophecy took place when God was looking after the people Israel in the Old Testament; it does not take place today.

But take a look at 1 Kings 22, where the king of Israel works to persuade the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, to take part in a war against Syria. To make his decision, the Judean king consults a prophet, Micaiah, who tells him not to go to war.

To put it another way, Micaiah takes a position on a current issue -- whether or not to join in the war. The prophecy takes the form of predicting the outcome based on one of the two choices. If we focus on Micaiah as a speaker rather than the source of his message, he clearly sounds like a TV pundit predicting the outcome of a politician's decision. (To finish the story, Jehoshaphat ignores the prophet's message and is killed in battle.)

Like Micaiah, the famous prophets Elijah and Elisha focus their messages on current, local events. Indeed, whenever we know the circumstances in which an Old Testament prophecy is delivered, the prophecy focuses on the local and the immediate, not on some "far in the future" outcome.

So while pollsters and pundits do not (usually) claim to speak for God, they follow the same interest of the ancient Israelite prophets. That is, they predict the here and now, or rather the here and immediate future. They are concerned with the same kind of content as prophecy, if not the same source.

And of course many Americans watch the pundits on TV, listen to them on the radio, and read them in the papers. If that isn't enough, some of us even search the bloggers to find one whose predictions we appreciate.

Indeed, in terms of who we vote for, too many of us base our decisions more on predictions of the future rather than on past and present facts and actions.

Americans have become fascinated with prophecies of the future. This is worrisome, for as we frequently experience, our experts cannot predict the weather with high degrees of accuracy yet, despite the decades of scientific study that has been put in (although forecasts are improving). If we cannot prophesy the weather with a high degree of accuracy, how can we prophesy our human future any better?

What remains unclear is which kind of prophecy has the most impact in voting. Is it prophecies of a future that is scary, and so people vote against it? Or is it prophecies of a future people find attractive and so they vote for it? I guess we will know on Nov. 3.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In Religious Knowledge, Education Trumps All

The most important factor in Americans' knowledge of religions, whether their own or someone else's, is education. 

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life surveyed more than 3,400 people, asking them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and world religions in their recent "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey." They found that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be able to answer more questions correctly. 

On average, then, education trumps religious upbringing, personal commitment to religion, belief in God or the Bible as God's word, as well as age, political party or philosophy, and region of the country in which you live as a predictor of how well people do on the survey. 

The average number of correct answers for all the respondents was 16, whereas college graduates generally answered 20.6 questions accurately. The score of people who had taken at least one religion course in college went up to 22.1. 

Let's take a closer look at some of the other results to put this into perspective. 

By and large, it is clear that Americans do not have a lot of general knowledge about religion. The plurality of people scored a point or two from the average of 16 right answers. The plurality of scores were below 18 but above 15. If this were a test, the grade would be around 50 percent, an "F." 

Of course, this was not a test; it was a sudden phone call (probably around dinner time) in which the pollster asked questions without any warning or warm up. 

Still, it is interesting to realize that the cluster of scores in the middle range largely came from white Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, mainstream and evangelical. By comparison, the only religious groups whose average reached above 20 correct answers were Atheists, Jews and Mormons. This is explained in part by the emphasis on education, especially on religious matters, among these groups. Still it is disconcerting to realize that the most generally reliable person to ask about religious matters is an Atheist, someone who does NOT believe in religion. 

The religion questions themselves focused on Bible, Christianity, Religion in public life, and world religions. Each of the top three groups were high scorers in two or three of these four areas. Jews and Atheists did best in the latter two, while Mormons and Atheists were at the top of the areas of Bible and Christianity. 

The only areas where a middle group did well was Christianity and the Bible. On Christianity, Mormons answered correctly for 7.9 of the 12 questions, while Evangelical white Protestants were accurate for 7.3 of them. Jews' general knowledge of Christianity (6.3 correct), by the way, is higher than any other Christian groups' understanding of their own religion. The only group scoring higher was the Atheists, with 6.7 questions right. 

In Bible knowledge, Evangelical white Protestants came second only to Mormons in their Scripture knowledge, averaging 5.1 correction responses (out of 7) to the Mormons' 5.7 right answers. Those who read their Bible weekly gained one correct answer over those who did not-another education-related result. 

The most disappointing scores concerned knowledge of world religions, with only Jews knowing enough to break into the "C" range, 72 percent, with Atheists three percentage points below. Mormons managed on average to answer just over half correctly, while Catholics and Protestants were lower. Given the increasing contact our nation has with the world and its religions through the Internet, travel and trade, that is saddening. We are not ready to deal with people who are different from ourselves. 

The best predictor of this lack of knowledge of world religions has nothing to do with it. Those who believe that the Bible is God's word and must be taken literally score almost four correct questions below those who believe the Bible was written by human beings. The low average score associated with that belief (14.5) indicates that people with this belief did well on the Bible and Christianity-oriented questions, but knew little about world religions. 

In the end, this essay begins where it started, namely, emphasizing the importance of education as the key to the best knowledge about religions and their place in our ever-shrinking world. 

Note: To read the survey results in their entirety, go to:

Programming Note: If you want to increase your knowledge of religions, online courses in Religious Studies are available every semester from the University of Wyoming. 

Or visit the following web sites sponsored by the Religious Studies Program. 
Exploring Religions     
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Bible and Interpretation