The Kansas City Star asked religious leaders to comment on the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey:
Cole Morgan, a leader in several area atheist/agnostic organizations, said the high score for his group did not surprise him.
"Atheists are well-informed about religion," he said. "When we get together, we talk about many topics, including religion, and we study it. It is so important in America that we feel we should be very knowledgeable so we can discuss it with people."
People in a lot of faiths just accept what they hear, he said.
Rabbi Mark Levin of Congregation Beth Torah in Overland Park, Kan., said any minority has to define itself in relation to the majority.
"When you live in American society, Christianity is all around you," he said. "If you are a member of the minority, you have to make an effort to learn about your own religion. Christianity is taught in American society. But Jews have to define what it means to be a Jew."
Judaism is a religion based upon study, and study of the faith is regarded as essential to keeping Jews alive as a people, Levin said.
Bruce Priday, Lenexa Stake president for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, said, "Mormons' knowledge of Christianity is based on the fact that Jesus Christ is the central focus of our faith, as evidenced by the name of the church. Also, the Bible is an important foundational Scripture, used in conjunction with other scriptures, including the Book of Mormon."
Furthermore, Mormons place great emphasis on increasing their religious knowledge. He said Sunday services include two hours of religious instruction, and high school-age Mormons attend early morning weekday religious education classes. Also, Mormon missionaries expand their knowledge of other faiths.
"Mormons are also encouraged to have daily personal Scripture study, daily family Scripture study and a weekly family home evening for gospel study and family activities," Priday said.
African-American heritage holds the Bible in high esteem, said the Rev. Betty Hanna-Witherspoon, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church.
"So my expectation would be that we would know more about the Bible than we would know about other religious traditions."
Also, she said: "Many of us express little interest in other faiths because we believe we have found the way. But in order to respect our sisters and brothers we need to know something about them."
As the country continues to become more diverse, preachers and teachers will have to teach their members more about what others believe and more about their own faith, she said.
Scott McKellar, director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute, said he was surprised that only 45 percent of Catholics knew the question about Communion. The institute does continuing education for adult Catholics.
"But did they distinguish between practicing Catholics and nonpracticing Catholics?" he asked.
Otherwise, he said the survey backed up what he already knew: There's a tremendous need for adult religious education.
"Adults are so busy that they don't take time to learn about their faith," he said. "It's the busyness of our culture; we're over-scheduled."
The church introduced a new catechism in 1994, and he said, "our goal would be to have as many Catholics as possible learn this.
"The Catholic Church is involved in ecumenism. But a lot of knowledge comes from personal contacts as we dialogue with people of other faiths."
McKellar said Hispanic Catholics probably scored low because of a language barrier. The institute has four sites that offer classes in Spanish and wants to expand.
The Rev. Paul Brooks, pastor of First Baptist Raytown, Mo., who has been involved in interfaith work, said the survey results were "disheartening to say the least.
"Clearly evangelicals have dropped the ball when it comes to teaching the Bible and related information," he said.
"It is as if we have done 'nothing in particular' to teach and train our congregations. I guess we should congratulate our Jewish and Mormon friends for doing a better job than we do. At least we did do somewhat better answering questions about Christianity itself."
Brooks said he teaches about other faiths.
"I think all churches should. It teaches respect for others and helps church members better understand Christianity."
The Rev. Gail Greenwell, rector at St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church in Mission, Kan., read the entire 70-plus-page study. She said she was not surprised by the relatively low ranking of white mainline Protestants.
"Many people identify themselves as Christians, and they may identify with a particular denomination, but that doesn't necessarily translate into active Christian education and discipleship as a lifelong process," she said.
"The Episcopal Church is open to studying world religions," she said. "Some denominations may feel the study of world religions denigrates the unique salvation available in Jesus Christ.
"We need to do a better job in making Christian education a lifelong journey. We have to study our church traditions, the Bible and how God is working in this world around us.
"In short, the survey shows that we have a lot of work to do."
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