Home November 2010 On the Lighter Side

On the Lighter Side

Did you hear the one about the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Jew?

No? Don’t feel bad. Neither did the Catholic, the Protestant, or the Jew.

In fact, according to a much-dissected recent Pew research poll, Catholics, Protestants, Jews – not to mention Lutherans, Muslims, and everyone else with a holiday shopping list and a codified reason to feel guilty – haven’t heard enough about religion to beat atheists and agnostics on a simple quiz about the world’s faiths.

Atheists and agnostics!

More people who refer to G-d as a “flying spaghetti monster,” know that Mother Theresa was a Catholic than even Catholics do. Fewer Jews know that Maimonides was MOT than do people who think religion subverts science (though, I wonder how many of those supposedly science-minded atheists know that the Rambam was also a doctor).

Out of 32 rather basic questions about religion, people who identified themselves as atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 questions correct. Compare that to Catholics who got 14.7 right answers on average.

The compulsively competitive person in me (a congenital condition found in many Jews) has arisen! Atheists and agnostics are clearly reading the Bible. People of faith, would it kill you to do the same?

Those of you who read the study last month are probably sitting over your lox and “schmear” right now saying soothingly, “Yes, but Mayraveleh, Jews got 20.5 questions correct. The highest score of any religious group, almost as high as the atheists.”

This offers me less comfort than would a Baptist drawing me a bath. For one thing, almost? We’re the people who teach kids that an A-minus is “almost” a good grade. And secondly, we don’t know how many of the people who identified themselves as Jews for the study are actually atheists themselves.

Remember, some of us think of Judaism as a peoplehood, some as a faith. So if David Rosensilversteinberg decides one day that G-d is a quaint relic of a more unsophisticated moment in human history and converts his Bar Mitzvah tallit into window valance, we would have no idea which box he’d check – Jew or atheist – before taking that quiz.

I wish the Pew study had been a little more specific about how it made participants self-identify. See, Jews are all a little bit atheist from time to time. Or if not atheist, than at least angry enough at G-d to stop taking His calls. It’s in the nature of our religion and our peoplehood. Israel, after all, means “He who wrestles with G-d.”

But the Pew study didn’t ask, “Are you a) Atheist, b) Buddhist, c) Catholic or d) Currently engaged in a healthy metaphysical struggle with the Hebrew G-d?”

It dawns on me as I write this, of course, that the opposite is also true: Atheists have no idea of knowing how many of their smarty-pants ranks have bubbes and zeides in Florida and a severe intolerance to dairy. It could be that after hanging out in the arid desert of atheism for a spell, these wandering Jews could say, “Hey, some milk and honey sounds pretty good right about now,” and head back to shul.

If they do, I want Pew to offer a do-over. And this time, all the other competitive Jewish mothers out there and I expect an A-plus.

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