Monday, May 28, 2007

New Poll: Religious Public, Appalling Ignorance

The headlines are striking: "Americans believe in religion but know little about it."

The United States is the most religious nation in the developed world, if religiosity is measured by belief in all things supernatural -- from God and the Virgin Birth to the humbler workings of angels and demons. Americans are also the most religiously ignorant people in the Western world. Fewer than half of us can identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and only one third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

The book on which this article is based might contain data on Catholics but the article doesn't report it. Most striking (to me) is that evangelicals are only slightly more knowledgeable than the general public.

The article speculates on the cause, and talks extensively about how religious education was once woven into regular education, and how that has been lost in our times. The author recommends that religious literacy be reintegrated into high school curricula.

I'm not sure that this constitutes a persuasive explanation or a viable solution. A more obvious culprit here is the dramatic change in the method of teaching in Churches that seems to date from sometime in the early 1970s. Most anyone raised who came through Sunday School or CCD (or CFF, or whatever it is called today) in the 1950s and 60s faced something approaching a rigorous program. There were Bible verses to memorize, doctrine to master, drills, and a catechism. There was an agenda, a text, and a job to do.

Then something strange happened. People who went through CCD and Sunday School in the 1970s when through a decade of weekly share sessions. Catechisms were out. Memorization was out. Doctrine was thought to be too cold and alienating. What replaced it were sessions of experience sharing and general discussion along the lines of "what would Jesus do?" The whole 12 years of religious education amounted to little more than a recycling of the idea that we should be nice to others. There were no obligations placed on students beyond the requirement that people share their feelings and personal perspective.

It doesn't take too much of that before you have lost a generation. Young people stop taking religion seriously, figuring that there is nothing of any real substance here. Once you learn a few platitudes about human relations, you have the whole thing. Then those people later find themselves in the position of being teachers, and they have little to teach people at all. It is more of the same. This problem has affected all denominations.

Readers no doubt can contribute their own stories, and even today, as important as the need for liturgical reform is today, the whole issue of catechism remains incredibly daunting. Pastors are often reluctant to intervene into the system that seems to be wholly owned and managed by a handful of players working together with the director of religious education who in turn works in cooperation with the diocesan office of education, which is mostly populated by people who adhere to the pedagogical theories that brought about this mess to begin with.

Also, it is notable that this widespread ignorance of essential religious facts comes about after a time when the liturgy was reformed with the specific intention of using every possible opportunity during Mass to provide forum for cognitive development. Communicating ideas to the people became the primary purpose of music, readings, homilies; even the style in which the celebrant presented the text of the Mass changed from a high liturgical style into more of a conversation/instructional style, to make sure that everyone fully understood the message. Latin was out, and non-cognitive means of conveying religious truth were depreciated.

Well, did it work? Evidently not. What we had here was a confusion over the purposes of specific venues. The teaching that once took place in a classroom was transferred to Mass, and Sunday School or CCD displaced the activities that were once restricted to private devotional meetings. The high purpose of liturgy, public worship directed not toward the people's cognitive development but to the adoration of God, no longer had a natural home. The beginnings of a reparation of this problem within Catholic circles, then, has a three part answer: 1) a firm conviction that true doctrine needs to be taught, 2) a belief that the classroom (and the home) is the right venue for teaching this doctrine, and 3) the liturgy is the activity in which the doctrine is applied and realized in the form of worship.

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