Reuters blog archive
Atheists and agnostics may not believe in God or gods but they know a thing or two about them, according to a survey of religious knowledge among Americans released on Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 ... Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers," Pew said. It found Protestants answered 16 correctly and Catholics on average 14.7.
"While previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that America is among the most religious of the world's developed nations, this survey shows that large numbers of Americans are not well informed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own," said Pew, which is based in Washington.
Highlights of the survey include:
- More than four-in-10 Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus.
(Photo: A Virgin Mary statue in an Irish school, 3 June 2010/Cathal McNaughton)
Roisin Hyde was five when she was hastily baptised a few days before she started primary school. Hyde's parents were agnostic but because non-Catholics in Ireland had few other places to learn how to read and write, the family latched onto the only option they knew.
Thirty-five years on and Hyde, an architect in Dublin, is struggling over where to educate her own two-year-old son. It's a dilemma faced by parents the world over. But in Ireland, where the Catholic Church runs more than nine in ten primary schools and half of all high schools, it's a question that too often has just one answer.
Some book titles are too good to pass up. "How God Changes Your Brain" is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg's fourth book on "neurotheology," the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like "Born to Believe" or "Why God Won't Go Away." Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn't be "How God Meditation Changes Your Brain." As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.
That's not to say Newberg doesn't have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe -- the area that directs the mind's focus -- is especially active while the amygdala -- the area linked to fear reactions -- is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.