Ignorance a Growing Problem
ROME, 23 APRIL 2007 (ZENIT)
Religious ignorance, even of the most
basic concepts, is on the rise according to some recent studies. In
Ireland, once renowned for its Catholicity, a poll revealed that 95% of
adolescents could not name the First Commandment.
The poll was carried out on a nationally representative sample of 950
people, by Lansdowne Market Research, for the Iona Institute and the
Evangelical Alliance of Ireland. Information on the poll was released by
the Iona Institute on April 9.
The results showed that knowledge of Christianity is highest among those
over 65 and lowest among those in the 15-24 age group. For example, 77%
of the over-65 group could name the authors of the four Gospels, but
only 52% of those 15-24 could.
When it came to naming the three persons of the Holy Trinity, 76% of
those over 65 got it right, but this dropped to 47% among those aged 15
to 24. Asked how many sacraments there are in the Catholic Church, 63%
of the over-65 group correctly answered 7, but only 38% of the 15- to
24-year-olds got it right.
"Some knowledge of Christianity should be part of general knowledge
because Ireland has such a deep Christian heritage," commented David
Quinn, director of the Iona Institute in the April 9 press release.
"From a Church point of view, there is obviously a correlation between
knowledge of the faith, and practice of the faith," he added.
The poll results sparked off a debate over what to do about religious
education. John Carr of the Irish National Teachers Organization called
for an overhaul of the religious education system, and the introduction
of an instruction in specific faiths, reported the Irish Times newspaper
The article also reported that Brendan O'Reilly, national director of
catechetics for the Church, admitted that the current religious
education programs, which date back to the 1970s, are in need of review.
He said they are working on a new syllabus, due to be completed in about
According to another report also published in April, this time in
England, one-third of the adult population has no contact with any
church, apart from baptisms, weddings and funerals. "Churchgoing in the
U.K." was published by Tearfund, an agency working in the field of
relief and development. The organization works in partnership with
The report is based on a representative poll of 7,000 adults. In general
the report found a split between personal belief and involvement in a
church. Many Britons declare themselves Christians, and high percentages
of people say they pray with some degree of regularity. Yet, this does
not translate into a regular religious practice in terms of
participating in a church.
Among the highlights are the following points.
Christianity is the predominant faith in the United Kingdom with 53% of
adults claiming to be Christian. Other faiths account for 6%, and 39%
claim to have no religion.
Figures for those who actively practice are lower, with 7.6 million, 15%
of the adult population, attending church monthly. This includes 4.9
million who go weekly. If what the report terms "fringe and occasional
are added, then 26% of adults in the United Kingdom go to church at
least once a year.
On a regional level, among those who attend on at least a monthly basis
Northern Ireland had the highest level of regular churchgoers, at 45% of
adults. Then there is a big drop to the next-highest, Scotland, coming
in at 18%. England follows, with 14% and Wales is last, with 12%.
In England, the city of London stands out, with 20% of the adult
population being regular churchgoers.
Two-thirds of adults in the United Kingdom, 32.2 million people, have no
connection with church at present, or with another religion. This group
is evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since
and those who have never been in their lives
"This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches," the
report comments. Of this group the study found that the great majority,
29.3 million, "are unreceptive and closed to attending church;
churchgoing is simply not on their agenda."
This challenge is also set to increase over time. Older people are more
likely to belong to the Christian faith. Three-fourths of those 65-74,
and 82% of those over 75 are Christians, compared with an average 53%.
Only one-third of those 16-34 are Christian, and for those aged under 45
the nonreligious outnumber Christians. Regular churchgoing plummets to
only 10% of those 16-24.
The report did, however, reveal that there are opportunities for the
churches, if only they can work out how to reach those who are open to
participating. Based on the poll results, among adults who have no
experience of church attendance, there are 600,000 who are open to going
in future. While of the group who have left a church there is a sizable
number, 2.3 million, who are also prepared to return in the future.
The United States also came in for a critical look at the state of
religion with the publication in March of the book "Religious Literacy"
by Boston University professor Stephen Prothero. In general, he says,
Americans have a higher level of church attendance than in other Western
countries. Nevertheless, they do not fare so well when it comes to
The book cites a number of polls and other material revealing similar
findings to those discovered in Ireland. Thus, while 20 million bibles a
year are sold in the United States, many people are unable to name the
authors of the Gospels or one of the apostles.
Similarly, they run into difficulties when asked to list at least five
of the Ten Commandments. Ignorance is even more prevalent when people
are asked about any of the non-Christian religions.
Prothero warns that religious illiteracy is more dangerous than other
forms of ignorance, given religion's important role in culture and as a
force in the world. Whether we want to understand the past, or
contemporary debates ranging from bioethics to foreign policy, we need
to have some knowledge of religion.
Religion, Prothero argues, will be one of the "key identity markers," of
the 21st century. In a nutshell: You need religious literacy in order to
be an effective citizen.
When it comes to identifying the causes of religious illiteracy,
Prothero attributes it to a variety of causes. In academic circles, the
culture tends to be persistently skeptical of religion, so both
textbooks and classes tend to ignore religion, thus leaving students
ignorant of religion's role.
Churches too have played a part. Religious education in recent decades
in many of the Christian denominations has left a lot to be desired,
favoring the touchy-feely over imparting a solid knowledge of the Bible
and doctrine. Parents also come in for criticism from Prothero, for not
instructing their children sufficiently in religion.
One of the ways to overcome religious illiteracy, Prothero recommends,
is to focus on secondary schools and colleges. Teaching religion in
public schools should not be seen as breaching the Church-state divide.
This teaching would be of a civic, not moral, nature, in order to ensure
a basic education in Christianity and major world religions.
For those who have already finished school, then he urges them to see
the attainment of religious knowledge both as a personal challenge and a
civic duty. Recommendations that one can only hope will not fall on deaf