The Pew Charitable Trust came out with some research statistics on the religious beliefs and educational background of Americans. One reporter, who looked for the positive in the statistics, noted that Americans are more well-versed in religious beliefs than practically any other people on the planet. Another reporter wrote a much more publicized article on the same data, which noted that atheists and agnostics knew more about the Bible and religious beliefs than Christians. Is the cup half empty or half full?
Both observations are likely true. In the Third World, Christianity is growing by leaps and bounds, but it is also competing with Islam. In Asia, Christianity is growing but is still mostly a minority religion where Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Islam hold sway in various areas. In Europe, where Christianity really launched into a worldwide faith, lack of religious participation (if not outright disbelief) is in the majority. I believe that having two major world wars on or near your homeland, where many family and friends were killed, might have tended to change one’s theological outlook (and that of their children, who are the adults now). So, it is in the Americas where Christianity still has the most adherents as a percentage of the population (Catholicism in South and Central America and Protestantism in North America).
At the same time, most people in the Americas get the overwhelming bulk of their religious education in their first eighteen years of life. Once they go off to college, or enter the workforce, they discover that religious education (except in a select few career fields) is neither encouraged nor applied. And often, it is not until those new adults become parents that they again begin to focus on religion. So, guess what happens? It is just like violin or piano lessons taken as a child, you grow rusty at it. Most people still believe. Most people still attend worship services. Most want to pass on religious faith to their children. But hold an adult Christian education classes, and a church is blessed if 25 percent of their worshiping population participates. So add together the 75 percent of worshipers who won’t attend any Christian education with the non-church goers who still profess to be Christians, and you get lots of people (most of the people) who are Christians but who also are not very well-versed in their faith. By contrast, if you are an atheists or agnostic, since you are standing against a cultural norm, you likely will have tried to think this through. You will want to be able to explain why you do not believe. You will study Scripture with a critical eye, find the portions of the Bible that do not appeal to you, and use them as your rationale for why you do not believe. And because this topic will likely come up more than a few times for atheists and agnostics, you might even keep a Bible handy in order to come up with ever-more extensive arguments as to why you don’t believe. I therefore am not surprised at all that atheists and agnostics have more “religious knowledge” than the average Christian. It may seem counterintuitive, but it makes sense.
A big problem we face in the church today is that if we allow society to believe that faith and education have an inverse relationship, then we are in big trouble. Most people hope that their children get the best education possible. Do we want them to lose their faith along with it? Do with want those with the best educations, who likely will end up in the most influential positions, have no faith at all? Of course not, but we must ask ourselves what we are doing (or fail to be doing) to appeal to our most educated populace. By ignoring the problem, are we encouraging our best and brightest to be “carted off the the Babylon of non-belief”? Most troubling is that denominations that used to attract the most educated Christians in our society are the very ones that struggle the most today. Doesn’t this mean that we are failing to connect with our educated fellow citizens in this society?
I will always remember a statistic they taught us in seminary. Out of ten Presbyterians confirmed in 1965, only five by 1995 still went to Presbyterian Churches. One went to another Christian Church. But four of the ten went nowhere.
How do we fix this? I think it is as the Reverend Landon Whitsitt (vice moderator of the PC[USA]), who preached here at Parkway this past Sunday, said, “We start doing church differently.” He said something to the effect of, “We not only think outside the box – we get outside of the box.” The Jewish people who were taken off to Babylon in 586 B.C. had to come up with new ways to practice their faith. We are faced with the same challenge today.
Education is growing by leaps and bounds. More discoveries are being made every year. The “Old, Old Story” is always applicable to each generation, but it must cannot be shared in “old, old ways” if we want it to thrive.
Let us bring our hearts and minds to the table as we seek to be the people of God in this time and place.