Claiming the Christian Label: Intellectual Ownership and the Spiritual Journey

Pew Research Center: U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

Source: Pew Research Center

The internet has been buzzing about a recent Pew Research Poll in which participants were asked questions about their overall religious knowledge. The study’s most publicized conclusion was that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religious peoples (particularly Christians).

Here’s a description from the study’s Executive Summary:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

The immediate reaction would be to poke fun of self-proclaimed Christians — and plenty of that is in order — but there’s also an assortment of valid critiques of the study. One of the best comes from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who properly emphasizes the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. I disagree with Hirschfield on a few points, but as I reviewed the Pew study for myself, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is God really going to be that upset if Christians don’t know whether Shiva is part of Buddhism or Hinduism?”

There’s a valid point to be made on that level, namely that relationship with the one true God is overarching and all-important; all other knowledge is secondary. However, I am not persuaded that Christians shouldn’t also pursue knowledge about the one true God, or knowledge about any other gods, for that matter. Indeed, in some sense, the two pieces are necessarily interconnected. For example, how do we know if the God we are serving is legitimate? How do we know whether the Bible is really true? Or, even if we know the Bible is true, how do we know if the God(/god) we are serving actually lines up with the one in the Bible?

On some level, we need to go the next step in our spiritual decisionmaking, and that will usually include taking significant intellectual ownership. But what does the Pew study really say about the Church on this matter? Are we as Christians really not taking enough intellectual ownership in our spiritual pursuits?

On this point, Ross Douthat provides some wonderful analysis that may help diagnose things more clearly.

As Douthat ponders:

I wonder how the data would have looked if Pew had created a generic “nonbeliever” category and compared that group to Protestants and Catholics. Instead, they created two categories: Self-described atheists/agnostics, and people who described their religion as “nothing in particular.” The first group was 3 percent of the sample; the second group was a much larger 12 percent. And while the atheist/agnostics had the highest religious literacy, the larger “nothing in particular” camp was among the least literate overall.

Basically, Douthat thinks that those who proclaim themselves to be “atheist” or “agnostic” take much more intellectual ownership than nonbelievers who label themselves as “nothing in particular.” What does this tell us about the “spiritual journey” of most atheists and agnostics?

Douthat continues:

The very act of declaring yourself an “atheist,” after all, suggests a particularly high level of interest in religious detail and debate — higher than many self-described Methodists or cradle Catholics who have a vague belief in God and show up at church on holidays, and also higher than the many nonbelievers who are merely indifferent to religion. Another way of putting it is that self-described atheists are the religious converts of the irreligious world. Like someone who leaps from Lutheranism to Catholicism, or Christianity to Islam, they’ve made an intellectual decision about their faith — or the lack thereof, that is.

I think Douthat is on to something, and if he’s correct, I think the study does indeed confirm that many self-described Christians are failing to take a proper amount of intellectual ownership. Whether the study should have or could have made this distinction more clearly on the religious side of things, the results still leave Christians with some important things to ponder.

How many people simply assume the Christian label because of tradition or cultural pressure? How many people call themselves Christians without fully considering the intellectual implications of what they believe? How many people should be answering “nothing in particular” when the Pew researcher asks them about their religious affiliation? If Douthat’s analysis is correct, it would imply a significant lapse in authenticity among so-called Christians, and if such a problem exists, how can we work to change it?

As with most things authenticity-related, I can’t help but think of the economic parallels. When it comes to taking intellectual ownership in our spiritual decisionmaking, how similar is it to having a sense of economic ownership in our earthly decisionmaking? Understanding this connection may help us get a better grasp on the value of intellectual ownership in our spiritual pursuits.

In a free society, we are allowed to pursue our goals and succeed or fail accordingly. Through this struggle we have the opportunity to learn and adapt. Hopefully, this sometimes difficult process will ultimately result in the creation of some kind of meaning in our lives. If we successfully traverse through the market system, the assumption is that we will not only see the physical fruits of our initiative, but we will also produce more spiritual fruits in the process. In other words, our struggle to find value and provide it to others gives us a significant sense of earned success. This earned success can then translate into more happiness and contentment on a spiritual (i.e. non-material) level.

Arthur Brooks talks at length about this type of earned success in his recent book, The Battle, in which he explains how taking ownership over our economic pursuits is an important part of finding happiness.

As Brooks says:

Earned success gives people a sense of meaning about their lives. And meaning also is a key to human flourishing. It reassures us that what we do in life is of significance and value for ourselves and those around us. To truly flourish, we need to know that the ways in which we occupy our waking hours are not based on the mere pursuit of pleasure or money or any other superficial goal. We need to know that our endeavors have a deeper purpose.

Brooks is an economist, so in The Battle he is primarily concerned with how we find such happiness in the economic realm (e.g. through work). However, he does argue that religion and family are some of the primary forces in bringing meaning to our lives. (He argues this point more thoroughly in his previous book, Gross National Happiness.)

So what can we learn from this?

First, as spiritual decisionmakers, this would seem to imply that energetically pursuing intellectual answers may lead to more happiness and contentment in our spiritual lives. As mentioned earlier, there is a deeper, root-level spiritual transformation that needs to take place first, but after that has occurred, shouldn’t such an intellectual pursuit follow?

Second, there are plenty of systematic ways we can promote or incentivize earned success in the economic realm, but what about the spiritual realm? Is there anything the Church can do to promote more intellectual ownership among the flock? I’m not talking about whether we can earn our salvation by intellectualizing things (we can’t), and I’m not talking about whether the Church can find a better way to manipulate people on the intellectual stuff. I’m simply asking what role the Church should play in encouraging Christians to take a bit more ownership of intellectual ideas throughout their spiritual pursuits. Are we as a Church so preoccupied with the more-important spiritual side that we fail to properly cultivate the also-important intellectual side?

I think so.

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  • Remnant Culture

    Are there any similarities between intellectual & economic ownership? New post on the Pew study on religious knowledge:

  • Remnant Culture

    @arthurbrooks FYI: I wrote a little bit about The Battle in my post about the Pew study on religious knowledge (weird?!):

  • Julia

    Great post!

  • Joseph Sunde

    Why do Christians know less about religion than atheists? Where's the intellectual ownership? My thoughts here: