Knowledge and Privilege

religious-knowledge-01 10-09-28

It’s interesting to learn from Pew that Jews and Atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than other groups. It’s especially interesting to see that this is a pretty robust result “even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics.”

But after seeing this blogged in a lot of places this afternoon, it took until I read Jamelle Bouie to see something really insightful about this:

All that said, let me speculate a bit. To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority. Put another way, there’s a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.

That seems right on. I would add that members of culturally dominant groups can often manifest a certain blindness about what’s happening inside their own cultures. My experience has generally been that American Christians aren’t fully aware of the religious significance of the US Postal Service delivery schedule or how convenient it is for “everyone” that extra time off is located in late December.