Dan Gilgoff, editor of CNN’s Belief Blog, wrote a “top ten” list of things he has learned in the first year of covering religious news. I have paid scant attention to CNN’s Belief Blog, mostly because it is fairly main stream and covers stories I am not particularly interested in. Still, Gilgoff reports that they have posted 1840 stories over the year, generating more than 450,000 comments. Here are some highlights from his list.
“Most Americans are religiously illiterate.” This item was fourth on the list, I would have bumped this to the first spot since it is the source of problem behind many of his other top ten items. This is part of the general “dumbing down” of America. Put any other topic into that sentence and it still works (historically illiterate, scientifically illiterate, etc.) I have found that most Americans have a thin knowledge of the Bible. Obviously a decline in church attendance has a great deal to do with this decline since the Church used to be where people learned what to believe theologically (catechisms) but also the basic story of the Bible. How may people, Christian or not, can tell the “big story” of the Bible?
A second reason for this illiteracy is the source of religious and biblical knowledge for most Americans – the faux “history” documentaries on the History Channel. Since people are not going to Church but are still interested in religion, they turn to TV as a source of knowledge. But like everything else, religious documentary programs are overly dramatic, light on facts, and generally skewed. Usually these shows are used as filled around religious holidays and purport to disclose the “Secret Mysteries of the Bible” or Jesus’ secret affair with Mary Magdalene. Most of the scholars used on these shows are on the left side of the spectrum (Crossan is hardly the mainstream of scholarship!)
Numbers 6 and 7 go together, “ Regardless of where they fit on the spectrum, people want others to understand what they believe.” and “Americans still have an uneasy relationship with Islam.” I suppose if we are generally ignorant the we would be curious about other beliefs. Religious books still sell well enough to support dozens of publishers and Bible book stores. Books on the “cults” are always popular and there is always interest in what “that other church” does on Sunday morning. Some Christians are seriously about flirting with “all things Jewish” and there has always been a trickle of Protestants returning to the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions.
With respect to Islam, most people never really thought too much about it until the “war on terror” brought Islam to the headlines on a daily basis. Lost in this discussion is the fact that a hundred years ago, people knew virtually nothing about Islam! Thanks to Google books, I am currently reading a guide book for touring the Holy Lands written at the turn of the 20th century. What strikes me about this professional guidebook is the total lack of understanding of Islam and the people of the Middle East a mere hundred years ago. Part of that might be a British colonial attitude, but the fact remains that people in the west knew very little indeed about Islam until recently, and most of what the get is from talk radio.
Finally, the number two item on Gilgoff’s list: “Atheists are the most fervent commenters on matters religious.” He gives a few comments from atheists, which are witty, but also rather emotional. I am certain that the number of atheist comments is disproportional to their numbers because they tend to be technically inclined and already reading news on CNN, while most fundamentalists are scared the Beast is tracking their movements on the intertubes and would not go to CNN’s website for fear of catching liberalism like a virus. Educated, vocal minorities always make for great comments on blogs. I think that Gilgoff’s observations are correct, “atheists are coming out of the closet to trumpet their disbelief, argue with the faithful and evangelize their godlessness.” Interesting choice of words, “the good news of godlessness” strikes me as sadly ironic.
The fact that CNN has devoted time and money to a website for the discussion of religion is a sign that people are intensely religious and genuinely have questions about God and their relationship with him. I am not sure there are answers on CNN’s BeliefBlog, but there is a discussion, which is a good first step.