Jesus Christ and the Sword of Destiny

Today’s New York Times has a great piece, “Atheists Outdo Some Believers in Surveys“, in which atheists, Mormons and Jews easily outpaced Christians in a random Pew survey asking questions about world religions and religious figures.

Christian Evangelicals and Mormons led the way in correctly answering questions about Christianity.  Meanwhile, 53% of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther, and 45% of Catholics thought communion was symbolic.  Actually, I don’t know if it’s more surprising that 55% of Catholics still think it’s literal.  Not sure you can win on that one.

The results didn’t surprise American Atheists president Dave Silverman who noted, “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Nor did the results surprise surly Vice producer Brian Orce, who scoffed, “Amazing. Another in the ‘No Shit’ series of articles along with ‘boys prefer violent games’ and ‘eating crap is bad for you.'”  Lest Orce’s comments come across as overly sarcastic, the Times did actually report on a study demonstrating that males preferred violent video games.

Brian Orce is no stranger to religious trivia.  Orce and I swung by a Wine and Chocolate party in Brooklyn a few years ago.  The train got delayed between stops, and the crowd began casting mean glares at our inane banter, leading Brian to remark, “Wow! We’re those guys on the train everyone wants to shut up.”  The conversation was posted on Overheard in New York, with the two of us labeled “Hipster #1″ and “Hipster #2″.

We eventually got to the party, which was mostly NYU law students, and Orce got into an argument with one of them about the inherent violence in Christianity, declaring, “Jesus even says, ‘I come not in peace, but bearing a sword.'”  The highly exasperated Christian law student he was debating with announced that he carried a bible with him at all times, and after Orce narrowed it down to the Book of Matthew, the room grew quiet as the three of us looked for the quote.  Suddenly, the law student slammed the book down in frustration. It’s because he saw this: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew: 10:34 NASB).

Orce followed up, “Yeah, he was even like, ‘if you don’t have a sword, sell your shit and buy one.'”  At this, even I assumed Orce had overplayed his hand, particularly because he had  slurred his words and could not pinpoint the location of the passage.  Unfortunately for the prematurely gleeful law student, in time we found this one too:  “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one” (Luke 22:36 NASB).

Look folks, the debate that began in this country over 230 years ago when prominent deists challenged the basic assumptions of the Christian church in the name of Enlightenment rationality should be revisited today, with maximum vigor.  Anyone who hasn’t read the excellent Christopher Hitchens book, God Is Not Great, should get themselves a cheap copy on Amazon right now.   What Hitchens’ book reminded me was that the real argument against organized religion isn’t necessarily based on science, though  this Indian dude wrote a hilarious post on his visit to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.   The real problem of religious institutions is that their texts and churches are built on completely flawed history, often by flawed people who perpetuated that flawed history.  You could show me scientific proof that the earth was the center of the universe, and “The Big Three” Western religions would still be premised on wild inaccuracies.

Anyway, organized religion and the need for its demise in the public sphere is a topic to be fully engaged another day, though having such an obviously agnostic U.S president means now is probably as good a time as any .

A final note on Hitchens though- his book came out the spring of 2007, shortly before I left New York for my sex trafficking research project in India.  The night before my flight, I got a text message from a random number, and the text was simply a picture of the board outside a church advertising Sunday’s sermon titled, “Christopher Hitchens Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About!”

I texted back, “Hilarious, but who is this?”

The response: “Sorry, wrong number. But glad you appreciated it.”

To end with a non-sequitor:


UPDATE (9/29): Some people have written me, or in one case, retweeted, with some disgust at this article.  A couple quick points bear mentioning:

1. I don’t agree with a characterization of this as “hateful”.  It bears no malice towards Christians, or any other religious person.  I am not even making any concrete suggestions about organized religion, except that we have a rigorous debate on its place in public policy.  I remain friends with Republicans and Miami Heat fans, despite far more vitriolic writing against those parties.  Hate the game, not the player, I suppose.

2.  Yes, there are smart Christians.  I never said there weren’t.  That said, people who are members of such a powerful body as the Christian Church absolutely should be responsible for their organization’s history.  I don’t see how it’s remotely controversial to suggest that.

3.  The New York Times article suggested that Christians in America could stand to learn a lot more about other faiths, as well as their own.  This is indisputable.  I am no religious expert, but I found the 15 question version of the quiz extremely easy.  Americans should, in general, be working much harder to understand other peoples’ history and culture, as well as their own.

About janos marton

A born and bred New Yorker, Janos Marton lives the dream and calls out the haters.
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7 Responses to Jesus Christ and the Sword of Destiny

  1. Jacob Press says:

    the quiz about religion is beside the point. religion isn’t about knowledge, it’s about certainty. no quiz can measure certainty.

    • janosmarton says:

      Can you elaborate, Jacob? For a large number of people, religion is about a faith in god, augmented by teachings that derive from texts and traditions. For people who wish to impose a specific faith, be it Christianity or any other religion, as a public way of life/public policy, they should know the origins of those texts and traditions. Some do, as I acknowledged to Jess, but this quiz, which was very easy, by the way, suggests that many don’t.

  2. Jess says:

    For the curious, you can take the quiz here: http://features.pewforum.org/quiz/us-religious-knowledge/? You know … there ARE lots of smart, thoughtful people in this country who also happen to be faithful in one way or another and who understand that their religious traditions developed out of specific cultural, historical contexts. It’s a shame that their voices get drowned out by fundamentalists who take it all too seriously.

    • janosmarton says:

      I’ve gotten a couple private comments like this, so I’m glad you commented here, Jess- I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there aren’t thoughtful people who are religious- anyone who is friends with me knows that. I do think that those specific historical contexts are worth revisiting as an academic/intellectual exercise, rather than just a faith-based one, and that’s a conversation I’d rather have with thoughtful people than fundamentalists.

  3. Jacob Press says:

    I’m no expert on faith, but I would guess that most people who consider themselves religious are less concerned with religious “facts” than they are with the strength of their faith. A religious person would argue that the texts and traditions that define a religion are really just expressions of something that can’t be gauged in a multiple choice test. You could even argue that the back story of most religions is just pretext that makes faith more accessible. Atheists presume that believers reason their way into religion based on the values and traditions a particular faith has to offer. Under this assumption, facts are crucial, and people who fail to grasp the foundation of their own systems of belief are necessarily ignorant hypocrites, which is what this survey (and the Times article) implicitly suggests to be the case about the religious in America. But for those who leap blindly into faith, either because they are brought up in a particular tradition or because they are driven by the natural human urge to believe in something greater than ourselves (“if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him”), facts often just get in the way. When I said that knowledge is beside the point, what I meant was that for most believers, religion isn’t about the details. Knowledge is secular currency, but for those with faith, the most important measurement is certainty.

    If Pew really wanted to gauge something important to religious people, what it should have done was give a survey rather than a quiz. The survey would measure how certain you are in what you believe: ie. “how certain are you that what you believe about your faith is true.” The most “correct” answer for a Christian (or a Muslim or Hindu…) would be “absolutely certain.” Atheists would also answer the same question: ie “how certain are you that what you believe about science and modern understanding is true.” Most atheists and agnostics would, if they were honest with themselves, answer “somewhat certain” or worse (by the standards of faith) “mostly certain, but could be convinced otherwise if the facts presented themselves.” The atheists and agnostics would fail miserably at this exercise just as the deeply religious Americans failed Pew’s knowledge-based quiz. The results from the faith survey would bring so much ironic joy to the faithful that Christians would make the news article describing the results the second most emailed item on the website of the Christian equivalent of the New York Times. The way we well-informed skeptics scoff at religious Americans’ lack of knowledge is exactly the way religious Americans scoff at skeptics’ lack of faith. I guess my point is that the Pew quiz is hardly a setback for religion in America, at least not by the standards of the religious.

  4. Jess says:

    Jacob and Janos, I agree with what you’ve both said here. The quiz just attempts to gauge what people know about the teachings of various religious traditions. It doesn’t attempt to assess what, if anything, people actually believe. (For example, the question about Catholics and communion asked the respondents to say what they thought the Church’s teaching is about Communion, not whether the respondents themselves believed that the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ. Though it’s kind of hilarious that so many Catholics “missed” that one. But I digress.) I think a survey of the religious beliefs people actually hold would be much more interesting – because I suspect it would show the wide diversity of beliefs and values within each religious tradition.

    • janosmarton says:

      Amen, Jess! I was being dense and misunderstood what Jacob originally meant- I agree that a spectrum of what people believed would be much more interesting- basic national polls I’ve seen on this do suggest a strong amount of support for anti-science, fundamentalist tendencies (especially outside the left coasts).

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