Currently I am team teaching a class at Wildwood on the “Essentials of Theology,” an eight week tour of seven key doctrines of the Christian faith. As such, my antenna is up right now toward the topic of “knowing what you believe.” Because of this, I found two news stories last week to be particularly interesting.
The first story was a new report put out by the PEW research group on the religious knowledge of United States citizens. This study consisted of a survey that asked questions about religions (not just Christianity). About one third of the questions concerned Christianity, a third of the questions concerned other world religions, and a third of the questions related to issues of religious public policy or religious history. I actually took the quiz and found the questions to be quite straight forward and simple. They were all multiple choice. One of the Bible questions (for instance) was “Who is the Bible character most associated with leading the Jews through the Exodus out of Egypt?” One of the world religion questions was “What religion celebrates Ramadan?” One of the history questions was “What religion was Mother Teresa?” I got all but one question right when I took the test. (NOTE: To be fair, I have an undergraduate “minor” in religious philosophy and a graduate degree in Theology . . . but I thought the questions were fairly simple ones to answer.) What made this story interesting to me was the average number of answers that people got right. On average, Americans only got 16 questions right (out of 32). Further, in a breakdown of Christians, Catholics got 16 right, Mainline protestants got 16 right and Evangelicals got 17 right (on average). Interestingly, the highest scoring subgroup who took the test were the atheists, who got 20 right (on average). The scores of this test helped to remind me of how little Americans today know about issues of faith. To see the results of the survey, visit this site: http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx
A second story that broke last week was an interview between Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and HBO Political Commentator Bill Maher on Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor.” Though the interview covered a number of points, I was particularly interested in these two commentators discussion of religion. O’Reilly is a professed Christian and Maher is a professed atheist. O’Reilly is a defender of “traditional Christian values” and Maher makes movies spoofing religion like “Religulous.” Both men are quite articulate, and their conversation was very interesting. You can see their dialogue below via the wonders of YouTube:
As I watched this interview I was struck by the fact that Maher better articulated a Christian understanding of Scripture than O’Reilly did. While I do not agree with Maher’s conclusion, I do think he has done his homework. Christians do believe that the Bible is God’s Word and that it is truthful when it describes supernatural events (like Noah’s Ark) literally happening in the world. O’Reilly’s rejection of these events (even a rejection of the entire Old Testament) is a better illustration of modern day deistic syncretism than it is a demonstration of true Christian orthodoxy. Now I do not expect Mr. O’Reilly to be a theologian, but I am troubled by the fact that many American Christians who watched the program may actually think that O’Reilly “won” the debate and represented their understanding of Christianity. While I agree with O’Reilly’s ultimate conclusions and reject Maher’s attacks, I think that many components of both of their arguments are dangerous threats to true Christian theology.
For too long, too many Christians have looked to people on the political right as spokespeople and somewhat “prophetic” voices. While there may be many political issues that Christians and certain political commentators might agree on, we must never allow these political movements to define our theology or our faith. As Christians, we need to know what we believe and filter the perspectives and policies of talking heads against Biblical truth.
Do you know what you believe?
If you had been in the conversation with Maher, how would you have responded?
Does any of this really matter?
I would love to hear your thoughts . . .
“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . . ” – 1 Peter 3:15
9 thoughts on “Do You Know What You Believe? Does it Matter?”
The notion of not ‘knowing what you believe’ is a non-sequitur. How sad that your question is still so relevant today, as many people are quite comfortable with a form of belief that doesn’t require even the shallowest understanding or conviction about what is really true. Perhaps that is the difference between theology and ideology. One is logic about God that is factually true, since God revealed it. The other is logic about ideas that we sense are wise, but we usually don’t require them to be watertight. It is sad that we mix the two so easily, thanks for the reminder to filter the latter through the former. The opposite leads astray, and doing neither is lazy.
Those stats are fascinating, but they make me a bit sad. Demonstrating a knowledge of the integral parts of other religions helps non-Christians know we care about hearing where they’re coming from in love– where their hearts are at — and are not just interested in talking at them and “proving” that we’re right.
Mark – I have concerns over both pieces of evidence you present here as possible indications of how an average Christian or even a below average Christian thinks (note: I didn’t say I have an issue with your argument or conclusions, just the use of O’Reilly and the PEW survey). First of all, while the PEW survey might have been straightforward, the conclusion that suggest atheists “know” more about religion is a bit of a stretch for me. In other words, this conclusion assumes that religion is all about “knowing” and is completely disconnected from any sort of emotional or spiritual understanding. For example, I study American history/literature. Because of the knowledge I have of our country’s past, does that mean I know what it means to be an American more than you do? No, there are other factors to consider. So when soemone tells me that an atheist “knows” more about Christianity because he/she has a few more verses memorized, I so badly want to argue with that. The end of the article suggests that atheists know more because they carefully studied all major religions and voluntarily decided to reject religion. I find that a bit biased. Most atheists or non-believers I know have rejected religion because someone or something has personally hurt them – an emotional reaction that has nothing to do with “knoweldge.” I would like to consider “knowing” God or religion involves more than just using your head. That doesn’t mean it’s all “touchy-feely,” but anyone who denies the emotions of a religion is selling it short.
Secondly, I have issues with O’Reilly that might take this discussion elsewhere, so without the risk of turning this into anything “political,” I’ll just say that as someone who has spent years putting together a dissertation, meticulously weighing evidence and drawing conclusions, I think O’Reilly is an illustration of a pundit who uses soundbites that suit his needs rather than someone who discusses the entire context of an argument. I would hate to think that the average Christian has such a shallow apologia for their faith as O’Reilly articulates.
Great thoughts guys. Thanks for the dialogue!
Tommy, I really appreciate your thoughts here. Two comments back related to your post:
1) Someone knowing facts does not mean they know something. I totally agree with you on this. I would never argue that an atheist knows Christ more than a true Christian. However, I would argue that knowing true facts about Christ is a big part of growing in our relationship with Him. I am sure you would agree with this as well. Apart from revelation, our relationship with Christ is more about our opinion and what we think God is like then who God is and how He has revealed HImself to us. The survey does not argue for the virtue of atheism to me, but it does point to the fact that an increasing number of Christians do not really know what they believe, or maybe better said — don’t know why they believe it.
2) I agree that O’Reilly is not an airtight rhetorist, but he is the leader of the most popular television news talk program of its kind (I put the Daily Show in a different category). Like it or not, many Americans think and process like O’Reilly. While I do not think that most people who are growing in their walk with God and have a true relationship with Christ share O’Reilly’s perspective on the Scriptures, I do think that many people sitting in churches across the country gave a hearty AMEN when O’Reilly basically disavowed the OT and laughed at the literal rendition of Noah’s Ark. Of course there are far more articulate spokespeople for the Truth out there, but O’Reilly represents a certain “meat and potatoes” lunchpail-to-work kind of mindset that is shared by millions of Americans. Just my thoughts. Thanks again for chiming in! You have great insight and this is an important conversation.
Hey Marc – Sorry about the rant. You got caught in the crossfire between me and some of my “colleagues.” We were discussing an NPR article that mentioned this survey and came to the conclusion that atheists/agnostics know more about religion than most people who claim a world religion. What you got here on your blog was a no-holds barred response that I wanted to make but couldn’t without risking my credibility in the relationships I’ve already made. I just find it interesting that when people object to Christianity they either hide behind the excuse that it just doesn’t make sense or that it is purely an emotional, read “no logic,” thing to do. It’s irritating, but part of life I guess. Thanks for giving me the outlet to vent.
Here’s the article I was talking about in my original post:
I really enjoyed your blog post, Mark.
I am not surprised by the survey results; so many people who consider themselves Christians, in my experience, use that term more to mean “I’m Christian because I’m not atheist, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, and I go to Church on Easter,” than to mean that “I’m a follower of Christ, the Son of God, and understand the Scriptures to be the Word of God.”
Also, I was really, really disappointed in the O’Reilly interview. No, I do not expect Mr. O’Reilly to be a Theologian, but when you have someone such as Mr. Maher who is very well-known in his own right, then being given the ability to speak his views to millions (through O’Reilly’s show), it seems to me to be SO important to have a skilled apologist on the other end of the debate, so as to give a fair representation of the Christian side of the story. Seeing such a weak defense given by O’Reilly, was really sad. It is sad, from the perspective that among the millions watching that show, I am sure there were many who may be “on the fence” regarding Christianity, and for those folks — seeing Maher’s critique, and then O’Reilly’s “weak” defense, could easily work to turn those folks in the direction of athiesm — away from God. For those who may have been “on the fence,” if they approached it as a jury in a court case would, and weighed the “evidence” presented by Mr. Maher and Mr. O’Reilly, it would be easy to conclude that the anti-God stance (Maher’s) wins. So sad; fortunately, the God of the Universe so much greater than he who is in the world, desiring to destroy and deceive. Watching that clip, I am certainly reminded of the importance of taking to heart the advice of 1 Peter 3:15 — about being prepared to share the reasons we believe what we believe. I personally think this (apologetics) is one of the most important tasks Christians have been assigned.
Thanks for the interesting piece, Mark.
Good thoughts guys . . . Tommy — I hear you brother. Thanks for the thoughts and the post. Great stuff.
O’Rielly is a professed Christian?! I honestly didn’t think he was… Interesting… probably not good…
Oh my… only 16% knew that Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes from faith alone. (sorry I’m just now getting around to reading this Mark…)