Religious Ignorance as a Threat to Civil Liberty

>How do you define blind faith? Consider America's romance with religion (regularly chronicled by the Pew Forum). The great majority of Americans profess belief in God and identify with a particular religious tradition. A smaller but still significant majority worry that religion's influence on American life is declining and want members of Congress to hold "strong religious beliefs." You might think that people who value belief so strongly would harbor some knowledge of what it actually entails. But asking these enthusiastic religionists about the basic precepts of their faiths, or anyone else's, is like asking Christine O'Donnell to cite a Supreme Court case she doesn't like. As Pew recently found, "large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions - including their own."

How ignorant are religious Americans? More ignorant than atheists and agnostics who proved most knowledgeable about religion; members of minorities faiths, namely Mormons and Jews, scored about as high, not surprisingly. Religious majorities whose views shape the cultural and political climate in which everyone resides have relatively little incentive or need to know about relatively powerless faiths. But shouldn't they be well versed in the teachings of their own faiths? While some areas of ignorance uncovered by Pew were predictable -- only 27% of survey respondents knew that most Indonesians are Muslim - other findings were startling: Nearly half of all Catholics surveyed (45%) did not know that "the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ." (I'm a secular agnostic with no connection to Catholicism, and even I know that.)

I'll leave it to theologians and religious leaders to decide whether God cares about the ignorance of worshippers, so long as they remain worshipful, or if knowledge of religious practices and beliefs is necessary to salvation.  I'm interested in the political implications of religious ignorance in this very religious country.  

It seems obvious that ignorance like this enhances bigotry. The less people know about Islam the more likely they'll take on faith the ravings of Islamaphobes like Pam Geller. A little less obvious, and surely less noticed, is the corrosive effect of misinformation about unpopular or demonized religions on civil liberty. Muslims may be most directly effected by post 9/11 abuses, ranging from torture and summary detentions to secret blacklisting, but imbuing the government with unaccountable power to engage in these practices poses clear and present dangers to everyone's liberty.

Religious chauvinism flourishes along with bigotry when ignorance reigns: The less you know about other people's religions, the more blithely you may assert the superiority of your own, especially if you're also unfamiliar with its teachings; unfamiliarity with your own faith will not incline you to criticize its failings. Un-informed religious sanctimony is perhaps most evident in hostility toward atheists and agnostics who are routinely accused of lacking any moral compass (unlike, say, pedophile priests and the bishops and cardinals who covered for them). People are entitled to their prejudices (and, personally, I don't care if religious people assume I lack a conscience). But the bias against non-believers ensures their political under-representation. When large majorities demand that congressional candidates display strong religious beliefs, atheists or agnostic are less likely to seek office. Those who do, are apt to lie low or simply lie about their irreligiosity, like members of the military forced to hide their sexual identities.

It's impossible to quantify the effect of these religious superiority complexes on church/state separationism, but recent increases in government support for sectarian religious groups are undeniable. Some support is direct, pursuant to faith based initiatives popularized by the Bush administration; some is indirect, in the form of exemptions from general laws enjoyed by religious groups even when they engage in secular or commercial activities. Besides, public ignorance of religion is matched by ignorance of constitutional principles governing church/state relations. According to Pew's religious knowledge survey, only a little over a third of Americans understand that public schools may offer courses in comparative religion; a mere 23% know that teachers may "read from the Bible as an example of literature."

Small misunderstandings like this can be highly consequential: They promote unwarranted hostility toward secular government, based on mistaken assumptions about its hostility toward religion. No wonder so many people regard separation of church and state as a burden on religious expression, instead of an instrument of religious freedom (especially essential to minorities). It includes the freedom to learn -- if only majorities would take advantage of it.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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