Knowing God vs. knowing about God

In a Pew Forum survey released Tuesday, atheists and agnostic surpass all other groups in their knowledge of religion. How … Continued

In a Pew Forum survey released Tuesday, atheists and agnostic surpass all other groups in their knowledge of religion. How do you explain this? Educational level? That they have given more consideration to the religions they have rejected?

Is knowledge of religion important? Why?

The Pew poll of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics scored ever-so-slightly higher than Jews and Mormons demonstrates at least four significant facts about what we know and why we know it. Appreciating these facts would go a long way toward ending the ugly fighting between theists and atheists. Of course they would need to want to stop their mutual mistreatment and disrespect for that to happen, but that is a different matter altogether.

First, Knowing God is different than Knowing about God and knowing about religion should not be confused with following a particular faith. That atheists and agnostics (why they are lumped together is a question for another time) scored highest is actually not that surprising. In fact, one might assume that knowing about religion plays a similar role in the lives of atheists/agnostics as does having religious experience does in the lives of believers – each is a source of personal identity.

Second, Knowing and believing are fundamentally different from each other. It’s not that one is inherently superior to the other, and each has its own rewards. We don’t confuse understanding the history and mechanics of human sexuality with the power and beauty of making love, so why do we fail to make that distinction when it comes to religion?

Probably because atheism is as much a personal identity issue for non-believers as is religion for believers. In each case arrogance about the position which works best in one’s own life leads, as it often does in such matters, to ignoring the insights which are only available through the perspective of the position one does not adopt.

Third, there is almost always a tension between depth and breadth of knowledge. Not surprisingly, the more deeply committed one is to a particular faith tradition, the less likely they are to know a great deal about other traditions.

This fact should serve as a warning to any group which focuses exclusively on the value of deepening one’s knowledge of their own tradition. Too often it creates followers of the faith who are dangerously ignorant of the wider world in which they live. I challenge anyone to locate a time in which the price of increasingly knowledge of one’s faith was increasing ignorance of the faith of others, actually worked out well for anyone.

Fourth and finally, one need not know a great deal, even about the history or dogma of one’s own faith, in order to feel deeply connected to it. As demonstrated by the poll, many Catholics do not understand transubstantiation, many Protestants do not know about Martin Luther, yet they identify with those traditions.

The history and ideology of any tradition is simply not the determining factor in most people’s attachment to it. People attach to religious traditions at least as much because of what they experience within the context of the community of followers, as they do because of the teachings of its leaders.

So far, the Pew poll has mostly served as a Rorschach test for those commenting on it. The atheists/agnostics trumpet their “superior knowledge” and the “fact” they are better informed than their believing counter-parts. Believers, for their part, mostly bemoan the “low levels” of religious literacy especially within their own communities, failing to notice the implicit dangers of ignoring the value of personal experience and knowledge of other traditions.

Of course, my own analyses may be just as much a Rorschach of my own approach to religious knowledge and experience, but to the extent it values those who don’t share my own personal conclusions, I’ll take it over the others any day and twice on Sunday, or whatever day one calls Sabbath!

Brad Hirschfield
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  • NoSacredCow

    So Rabbi Hirschfeld, in other words, is saying; that to be a believer you don’t need to know anything…

  • johnnormansp

    The reason I left religion to begin with was the pressure the church groups put on us to state, out loud, that we “know” that God exists — this is obviously a lie. Believing is one thing, knowledge is another. This is an epistemological shell game, when first they tell you it’s a belief, then, because you believe, you know it, then, when it suits them, it’s a belief again. “Oh what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive.” The lies all start when they force the little children to sing “Jesus loves me, this I know…” –forcing them to lie, because they know no such thing, nor even if Jesus exists! Talk about building a house on sand! But the pastors, priests, rabbis and imams make a living off from this, they have too much invested in it, and will never admit that it’s a shell game — to themselves, maybe, but never publicly.

  • TinMan2

    My husband’s family are devote atheists who punished their children when they attended a church with friends. My family were evangelicals right who vigilantly condemned Darwinism. Although, I don’t attend church; I do believe in God and feel I study my historical dogma.In rural areas churches are how the locals teach their children. They talk about the dangers of flash floods, gas leaks, diet, exercise and the need to call the isolated elderly each day. Our actual sermon was about telling your husband, ‘Your the Man’. My mother didn’t think Jesus ever said that. The minister doesn’t play a controlling role in the lives of the parishioners. Everyone takes away whatever they please, but they continue a social rapport. Its an outreach program for the well-educated to work routinely with truly poor families, but those families are not very diverse. Immigrants prefer to establish their own churches.My husbands family are educators and lawyers of Jewish descent. It appears to me that their faith is very much about social ranking and control. The education is delivered through institutions and parents participation is dedicated to supporting rank. It is important that youth respect social controls.I have a hard time determining if the difference reflects religious boundaries or urban society vrs rural society; mass control vrs individual freedom. It seems urban society have very little choice except to prepare youth for life in an institutionally managed society. The fervor of passion for education certainly seems to rise to the same pitch as any other bigotry; education does its fair share of creating punitive oppression. We saw a church post their saying this week. It read: 20 minutes of prayer or a lifetime of murder.I understood that to mean that people who pray don’t murder. My husband understood it to me that people who pray think they are waving a magic want over others and fixing social problems. We each felt strongly about our interpretation.Religion has little to do with social dogma and more to do with the flag. It is a ritual institution that has always competed with education, police, military and state allegiance. The mantra changes every few years and at least rural Evangelical Protestant tribes tend to be small family units. The mass institutions of state efforts attempt to moderate human understanding on a broader level.I think its is better if we view each of these institution as checks and balances that can value and respect each other.

  • Rongoklunk

    I guess I’m a different kind of atheist from the knowledgeable ones. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a bible, because I realize that it was written long long ago by ancient people who had none of the knowledge that even a teenager has today. It is full of the superstitions of very ignorant people who knew much less about the world than I do now.Yes many atheists are folks who saw through religious teachings and decided it was all nonsense. People like this have had a problem with the supernatural bit, and notice that there is no evidence of any kind that such a dimension exists. It’s hard to believe in a god when the supernatural itself is so absurd. Atheists think that gods just exist in the world of the imagination. It’s a much better hypothesis, and is demonstrated by the thousands of other gods who humans have worshiped,from Apollo to Zeus. None of them were real. How could they be?There are no gods and never were.

  • dcdinnell

    A survey such as this, which is creating a base for their research, can really mean anything one wants it to mean.However, what one really knows in life is most often interrelated to what one really does with their life. Even knowing God may not be enough, as most people who learn something well, learn it through living it. Or as the scriptures say it… “…faith without works is dead…”

  • artistkvip1

    I agree with many of your points and you have done a good job of expressing the in-finite or the spiritual which by definition is amorphous and to some extent no definable if the belief is actually in something greater than ones self , if on had any humility they would have to know they could not know or understand all… this i think is where belief and faith come in and function.. In my view they far less to do with the individual dogma o or religion which is in it’s essence is some group of peoples true life experience that actually worked for them to find God or faith. I suspect many religion are worshiping the same God but to proud of thier own methods or to ignorant to know there are many ways and weighs to find God.. I think it is personal, if it is real. I matters nothing to the individual what another feels or thinks if they themselves can feel or think or know is working in thier life. There are maybe only 2 things you can never take away from a human being with out thier permission is thier faith and thier human dignity. Even unto actual death a human can choose to hold on to these things if they chose and know they have a choice. Many times in life the two are intertwined with great faith allowing great examples of human dignity or perhaps it is the individual who knows they have to keep thier human dignity because life or circumstance or wrongs by others have trued unsuccessfully to strip it away. I have know atheist with great human dignity and caring for others so in my direct observation it is possible but i myself can not image how because i am a person of faith by necessity in life. I don’t think a human being can really understand another human being that is actually different from themselves in fundamental but real way weighs, l somewhat like the God and human understanding but not as big a gap with humans maybe. Or it should not be so big a gap with humans dealing with other humans. To know you do not know all things is to know more than many and I’m pretty sure it says this in the bible many times & ways or weighs. Going back to the belief or faith thing being two different things , i see them as the same with belief being that first feeling of spirituality that if one has had the experience for themselves knows. the faith comes with the working knowledge of the human psyche of the belief being there when needed and is maybe a more optimistic look at the same event. I call it a feeling because with me if i didn’t feel it there would be nothing there.I might have the wrong definition for belief and faith butnot the actual essence and working essential of the reality which is maybe more important than a name or a particular religion or saying the same thing in different story’s in different ways. Think about what God said to one man named Abraham and know he most likely talked to more than one. One could argue Abraham is the father of the Jewish the Muslim and the christian religions have 1 God and are cousin not enemies.

  • Secular

    First, Knowing God is different than Knowing about God and knowing about religion should not be confused with following a particular faith.

  • Secular

    Well put Rongoklunk. Although I scored 100% of two of the excerpts of the silly survey. Only reason to know more about this totally worthless subject is to enlighten the gullible and the credulous. And to counter the zealots and the priest class from propagating it, in whatever little way we can. Actually I am a bit ambivalent about this survey is on one hand I am elated that the lack of “knowledge of religion” in the population at large is diminishing to the same level as the knowledge of AlChemistry. On the other hand if more rational folks have an indepth knowledge they would walk away from it. I suppose we those folks, so we walked away.

  • jcabal

    I guess we could look at anything that way. Better to be the boss than to know how to do your job. Better to own a big boat than to know how to sail. Better to believe that you made a good choice than to know how to make a good one.