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Nicholas Kristof: Americans are clueless about religion

With Easter and Passover freshly behind us, let's test your knowledge of the Bible. How many mistakes can you find:

Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments; for all the differences among religious denominations, the Ten Commandments are a common bedrock that Jews, Catholics and Protestants agree on.

Sodom and his wild girlfriend, Gomorrah, soon set the standard for what not to do. They are turned to pillars of salt.

The Virgin Mary, a young Christian woman, conceives Jesus immaculately and gives birth to him in a Jerusalem manger. Jesus, backed by the Twelve Apostles and their wives, the Epistles, proclaims what we call the Golden Rule: "Do one to others before they do one to you." The Romans repeatedly crucify Jesus - at Cavalry, Golgotha and other sites - but he resurrects himself each time.

Christianity spreads through the gospels, which differ on details but all provide eyewitness accounts of Jesus's life from birth to death. Finally, Rome tires of throwing Christians to lions and becomes the first country to adopt Christianity as its religion. The Bible is translated from the original English into countless languages.

So how many errors did you spot? There are about 20 mistakes, which I've listed at the end of this column, and they reflect the general muddling in our society about religious knowledge.

Secular Americans are largely ignorant about religion, but, in surveys, religious Americans turn out to be scarcely more knowledgeable.

"Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion," Stephen Prothero noted in his book, "Religious Literacy." "Atheists may be as rare in America as Jesus-loving politicians are in Europe, but here faith is almost entirely devoid of content. One of the most religious countries on earth is also a nation of religious illiterates."

Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they believe that the Bible holds the answer to all or most of life's basic questions. Yet only one-third know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and 10 percent think that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

Many Americans know even less about other faiths, from Islam to Hinduism. Several days after 9/11, a vigilante shot and killed an Indian-American Sikh because of the assumption that a turban must mean a Muslim: Ignorance and murderous bigotry joined in one.

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius - and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

Secularists sometimes believe religious knowledge doesn't matter because the world is leaving faith behind. Really? Faith is elemental in much of the world, including large swaths of America.

How can one understand Afghanistan without some knowledge of Islam? For that matter, how can one understand America without any intellectual curiosity about Evangelicals? Can one understand the world if one is oblivious to the stunning rise of Pentecostals at home and abroad?

Every high school and college graduate in America should, I think, have some familiarity with statistics, economics and a foreign language such as Spanish. Religion may not be as indispensable, but the humanities should be a part of our repertory. They may not enrich our wallets, but they do enrich our lives. They civilize us. They provide context.

And we don't want to emulate the long-ago Texas governor who, in one of those stories that may be too good to be true, opposed Spanish instruction because: "If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for us."

Errors in the Bible story above: Joan wasn't Noah's wife (and Arc wasn't his name); Moses climbed Mount Sinai, not Cyanide; there were 12 (unnumbered) commandments, and Jews, Protestants and Catholics have different versions depending in part on how they compress them into 10; Sodom wasn't a person; same for Gomorrah; they weren't the ones turned into salt; the Virgin Mary was Jewish; the immaculate conception is a Catholic doctrine referring to the conception of Jesus by Mary; Jesus was said to be born in Bethlehem; epistles are letters; the Golden Rule governs what you do "unto others"; Jesus was crucified once; it's Calvary, not Cavalry, and it's the same place as Golgotha; Jesus is said to have been resurrected once; although we don't know much about the gospel writers, they presumably weren't eyewitnesses but incorporated eyewitness sources; the Gospels of Mark and John do not refer to the birth of Jesus; Armenia was first to adopt Christianity as state religion; the Bible is translated from Hebrew and Greek, not English.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times. Contact him atFacebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof .



By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF