Pop quiz! Was Maimonides A) a Jewish Torah scholar of the Middle Ages; B) the author of the Treatise on Hemorrhoids; C) a student of Arab Muslim philosophy in the 12th century; or D) the god of wealth and money that we're not supposed to worship?
Actually, to get the most-missed question on the Pew survey of religious knowledge right, you only have to be able to identify his religion. (Maimonides was Jewish; A, B, and C above are all true.) Even of Jewish people, 43 percent couldn't I.D. the man who authored the 13 Jewish principles of faith still held to be obligatory by Orthodox Jews. They should be ashamed--that's like a Protestant not being able to identify Martin Luther as the man who started the reformation (and 53 percent of them couldn't) or a Catholic not knowing that the bread and wine of communion aren't merely symbols, but actually become the blood and body of Christ (45 percent of Catholics got that one wrong, too).
In spite of missing Maimonides, Jews were among the most knowledgeable of the people surveyed with regard to the basic tenets of all faiths, major religious figures, and the constitutional principles and rulings that govern the intersection of religion and public life, along with Muslims. But when asked 32 questions regarding world religion and religious history and geography, atheists and agnostics scored best. The New York Times quoted Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, expressing smug nonsurprise: "I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," Silverman said. "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." An anonymous representative of Christianity said only, "But you didn't tell us there was gonna be a test !"*
Want to test your own knowledge? You're not alone--so many people appear to be clicking on Pew's link to a 15-question mini-test that the site is down. Evidently, even Americans who disagree on many questions of religion can come together on one thing: We love proving that we know more than the average Joseph.
*Not really. But I'll bet Jon Stewart uses that one tonight.
Photograph of the Yanov Torah by Valley2city for Wikimedia Commons.