[M]y experience tells me that a focused NJPS-style survey of Jews’ knowledge of Jewish history and religion would reveal large if not enormous gaps in said knowledge, regardless of whether the Jews are Orthodox, secular or anything in between.
Why is this? Why is it that so many Jews know so little when it is possible to research a subject with a few google searches?
Some elitists would write this off as more proof of the stupidity of the masses, but this argument won’t hold. There are many people who are quite intelligent and often savants in their chosen fields who are nevertheless just as politically or religiously ignorant as your average Joe.
Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason University has a better answer: for most people, ignorance is often a rational decision rather than a sign of intellectual deficiency. Take politics – to properly learn even one issue on the political agenda requires a significant amount of time and effort. Given that the chances of any one citizen affecting policy through votes or other means is infinitesimal, it is simply not worth it for them to spend the time just to become a “better voter”.
The same argument could be said for religion and Jews. The corpus of Jewish literature is enormous and still growing; it is doubtful if any one person can master but a small part of it. Given that most Jews will not become – or at least have no ambition to become – intellectual giants or major religious/secular scholars, their incentive is to learn enough to be able to “get by” in life without too much fuss. Once they’ve passed that particular threshold, whatever further information they will learn will either be for entertainment or curiosity purposes or because it is a religious ritual duty – even if they remember nothing afterwards.
As Woolf recognizes, ignorance about religion is far from an exclusively Jewish phenomenon. Surveys show widespread religious ignorance among adherents of most other faiths as well.
I agree with Woolf that there are important commonalities between religious ignorance and political ignorance. Much ignorance about religion clearly is rational for exactly the reason he indicates: Most people don’t have the interest, time, or expertise needed to learn as much about religion as clergy or theologians do. At the same time, ignorance about religion is in some ways less rational than ignorance about politics. For the individual voter, there is only a tiny chance that his political knowledge will make any difference to electoral outcomes. By contrast, individuals seeking salvation have good reason to learn about religion, regardless of whether others choose to do so or not.
If believing in the right faith or following the right religious laws is the road to eternal salvation, then there is a huge potential payoff to learning about religion. It’s more than just a matter of life or death. Life after death could be at stake too! There is also good reason to study religion even if you don’t care about eternal life, but just want to be a good and moral person. It could turn out that the only way to achieve that is to follow the dictates of a particular faith.
Of course, some religions hold that salvation does not depend on the details of your religious beliefs. It is also possible that all religions are mistaken, because atheism is true. But you need substantial knowledge to properly assess these competing claims. I explained the problem in greater detail in this post:
[One] possibility is that most Americans believe that in order to be saved in the afterlife you just have to be “spiritual” in some vague way. So long as you believe in God (or perhaps multiple gods), the precise details of religious doctrine don’t matter too much. This is consistent with survey data showing that most Americans believe that a variety of religions can lead to salvation, but 50% say that you can’t be a good or moral person if you are an atheist. If all you need for salvation is a kind of vague general religiosity (plus, perhaps, some good works), then you don’t need much actual knowledge of religion.
This, however, still leaves open the question of why most people don’t make more of an effort to determine whether this kind of ecumenical spirituality is actually true. After all, many great religious leaders… argued that your soul can only be saved if you embrace the one true faith. Some atheist writers… contend that you are more likely to become a moral person if you reject religion altogether. It may not be rational to reject these possibilities without investigating them in greater depth than most of the American public apparently has. On the other hand, it’s possible that getting at religious truth is so difficult that most people rationally choose not to study it in depth because they know they are unlikely to increase their chances of salvation very much even if they do.
Having written a book about the causes and consequences of political ignorance, I think there would be great value in a book presenting a systematic analysis of religious ignorance. I am not aware of any recent book on the subject, using modern social scientific methods (though it’s possible I have missed something). Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about religion to write such a book myself. But if you are a scholar with greater relevant expertise, this could be a good topic for your next book!