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Despite Religious Roots, Americans Struggle to Understand Others’ Beliefs

October 12, 2010 at 6:39 PM EDT
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As part of the PBS series "God in America," Ray Suarez looks at what Americans know and don't know about religion and each other.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: understanding the religious beliefs of other people. Ray Suarez looks at why that matters in a country as diverse as ours. His report was produced in collaboration with the PBS series “God in America.”

RAY SUAREZ: The United States continues to be the most religious of the wealthy industrial democracies. In four centuries, religion has played a central role in American life, even as the religious marketplace has grown steadily more diverse.

In conjunction with “God in America” producers, the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life surveyed Americans’ religious literacy. It revealed that most Americans lack a basic knowledge of religion, their own and their neighbors’.

Pew asked 32 questions about religious belief and religious history. The average person got just 16 answers right, just half. Of the 3,400 people who took the test, just eight got all the answers right. About 70 percent knew Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But only 47 percent knew the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist. Just over half could identify the Koran as the holy book of Islam.

At a panel sponsored by Pew and the producers of “God in America,” I asked Boston University professor and religious literacy advocate Stephen Prothero, so what? Why does it matter? What would change if people knew more about, let’s say, Islam?

STEPHEN PROTHERO, Boston University: The question is, how can Americans understand the world, act in it, economically, politically and militarily, without knowing something about the world’s religions?

I think it’s very easy to look at a particular question and dismiss it and say, well, what does that really indicate? But I think these kinds of simple questions indicate the deficit that we have as a country in understanding the religions of the world and our own religions. And it handicaps us to act as informed citizens, as we’re supposed to in the democracy that we live in. So, I think it matters a lot.

RAY SUAREZ: The Pew survey found, 80 percent of respondents know Mother Teresa was a Catholic, but only 8 percent know the great Jewish theologian Maimonides was Jewish.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m a Christian by choice.

RAY SUAREZ: And repeated national polls show as many as one in five Americans say the president is a Muslim. In a recent visit to Albuquerque, President Obama was asked again to explain his religious background.

BARACK OBAMA: As president of the United States, I’m also somebody who deeply believes that the — part of the bedrock strength of this company is that it embraces people of many faiths, and their own path to grace is one that we have to revere and respect as much as our own. And that’s part of what makes this country what it is.

RAY SUAREZ: Religious conflict and controversy is as old as this country.

“God in America” tells of historic tensions between Protestants and newly arrived Catholics, between traditional and modernizing American Jews. Immigration has steadily grown the numbers of American Muslims and brought new conflict. This summer, controversy roiled over the so-called Ground Zero mosque, the plan to build an Islamic cultural center in an empty building in Lower Manhattan blocks from the World Trade Center site. The protests against the proposed building took a decidedly anti-Islamic tone.

MAN: Islam is a religion that doesn’t guarantee freedom for anyone.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF, founder, Cordoba Initiative: We come together at a time of great crisis and danger.

RAY SUAREZ: Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the would-be Islamic center, had to defend both his plans and his faith.

IMAM FEISAL ABDUL RAUF: Let there be no mistake, ladies and gentlemen. Islam categorically rejects the killing of innocent people. Terrorists violate the sanctity of human life and corrupt the meaning of our faith. In no way do they represent our religion. And we must not let them define us.

IMAM YAHYA HENDI, chaplain, Georgetown University: You know, I dare to say that the majority of Americans do not know a lot about Islam.

RAY SUAREZ: Imam Yahya Hendi is a chaplain at Georgetown University.

IMAM YAHYA HENDI: And, if they know something, it’s something negative that doesn’t represent the faith that we teach in our mosques or that is written in books. However, more people know about Islam now than 10 years ago, because of what happened on September 11, because of the Ground Zero Islamic center, because of the burning-of-the-Koran crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: A Florida pastor tried to make the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington International Burn a Koran Day. Some of the most powerful people in the country contended, the lack of understanding has a cost.

The general running the American war in Afghanistan counted that cost in human lives.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, International Security Assistance Force: We’re very concerned about the implications of a possible Koran-burning in the United States. It puts our soldiers at jeopardy, very likely. We have already seen a demonstration here in Kabul just at the rumor that this event could take place.

RAY SUAREZ: In the end, Pastor Terry Jones didn’t burn any books.

PASTOR TERRY JONES, Dove World Outreach Center: And, of course, Muslims do not want us to burn the Koran.

RAY SUAREZ: TIME magazine recently asked, “Is America Islamophobic?” The Justice Department is looking into arsons and vandalism of Islamic mosques.

MAN: Islam is not a religion. It’s a political system.

RAY SUAREZ: New mosques in other places in the country have drawn opposition and protest.

WOMAN: You don’t want a mosque in Murfreesboro?

WOMAN: No.

IMAM YAHYA HENDI: I do believe that you fear that which you do not know. You fear Islam when you don’t Islam. You fear Christianity when you don’t know Christianity.

And I believe that the best way to sort of counter this wave of ignorance about Islam or any other religion, as a matter of fact, is education, is the availability of data in churches, in synagogues, in mosques, on TV screens, but also in our schools and universities.

RAY SUAREZ: Schools are an obvious place to push back against religious ignorance. These teens will be adults in a far more religiously diverse America than their parents grew up in.

KATHY WILDMAN, teacher, Chantilly High School: God has a face, right, the masked (INAUDIBLE) so, giving God personality. Theism is a personal God, right?

RAY SUAREZ: At Chantilly High School in Virginia, a class on world religions is in its 15th year under teacher Kathy Wildman. From August to June, these teens will get a grounding in the history, structure, and beliefs of the world’s religions.

Why is it important for an 18-year-old to have at least a familiarity with the religions of the world?

KATHY WILDMAN: Because we’re going to send that 18-year-old out in the world and ask them to make decisions in a democracy. We’re going to ask them to fight, maybe. We’re going to ask them — we’re going to ask them to participate in an increasingly global society.

How do they understand the people they’re working with, how do they understand the other, if — if they haven’t learned about the views of the other?

RAY SUAREZ: The Pew poll found, Americans believe it’s much harder to teach comparative religion in public schools than it really is.

So, I wanted to talk to you all about why you’re talking this class.

JACOB HICKS, High School Student: This class kind of tells you things that you have always wondered, and it gives you a different idea of what’s out there.

HANNAH MAKRIDIS, High School Student: In the world today, you know, religion is a big part of it. And we have wars over religion. And I just think it’s important that we’re informed about it, and so it’s a necessary step towards tolerance.

RAY SUAREZ: Americans are still wrestling with the idea that, today, millions of residents are Muslims. It’s not the first time a new group of believers has gotten a mixed welcome.

At a recent town hall meeting, ABC News asked if Islam is to be feared. The Reverend Franklin Graham was one of the panelists.

REV. FRANKLIN GRAHAM, Samaritan’s Purse: I don’t believe in Islam. I don’t believe a word of it. I do respect their right to believe whatever they want to believe.

But I disagree, Christiane, with — with the Sharia law, because they do stone women. They do imprison. I have worked in the Sudan where they have burned over 1,000 churches, 1,000.

IMAM YAHYA HENDI: I think Muslims have to have what I call a proactive agenda, an agenda that forces Muslims to pay the money and do what is required to reach out to the rest of America with the right message of Islam. That’s number one.

Number two, Muslims who give Islam a bad name need to reform and need to change. And America will change the way it perceives Islam.

RAY SUAREZ: Imam Hendi said, Islam now has America’s attention, mostly for bad reasons, but that attention can turn into knowledge, he says, and that knowledge into understanding.

JIM LEHRER: “God in America” airs tonight and continues tomorrow on most PBS stations.