The facts and faith.

I am currently involved in a project to survey school pupils about their knowledge and interest in religious education. At a recent meeting of a group of people concerned with this project, I was handed a copy of this report (in .doc format). The report is entitled Religious Education Knowledge Based Survey and was published in 2007. In the summary provided on the author’s website it states that:

While there are some encouraging responses to the survey, the results overall indicate that most pupils are lacking in knowledge which is essential for authentic Christian faith.

At the end of the report, reference is made to asimilar Iona Institute report published in April of 2007 and available here (as a .pdf). It briefly compares the results to those of the Iona project. In reviewing Eanna Johnson’s report, something problematic stood out: the use of the words ‘essential’ and ‘authentic’. If there is one thing that I have learned over my years as a researcher (in any subject) it is that there is little benefit to claiming authenticity or an essential nature. For example, in his report Johnson says:

…the great majority lack an authentic Christian understanding of Jesus: most are weak on understanding Jesus as truly divine, a person who is more than an exceptionally good human being, while only 10% understand Jesus as our Saviour from sin.

The question asked by this survey from which we get this summary allowed the school-going respondents (13, 14 year olds) to choose from options such as “a great son of God”, “a great teacher & leader “and “true God and true man”. They were instructed to “circle the word or phrase that best matches each sentence”. That best matches. Right. Quite apart from the theological concerns about the options presented to the teenagers (I am assured that there are problems with several questions), I want to use a further example to illustrate my point. The questionnaire asked the pupils:

3-5. Name three miracles performed by Jesus:

And then in the report (but not of course in the questionnaire itself) we are provided with a list:

Miracles of Jesus e.g. Marriage Feast at Cana; Draught of Fishes (x2); Widow’s Son Raised to Life; Feeding of 5,000 & of 4,000; Jairus Daughter Raised to Life; Raising of Lazarus from Death; Jesus Walks on Sea; Tempest Stilled;  Change bread & wine into his body & blood.  (major healings of Jesus also acceptable)

There are mixed results (page 7 if you’re interested) but the point is is that respondents had to name three of these to get the question ‘right’. You might as well have asked third year engineering students to recite the Canterbury Tales. So 21% of first year pupils cannot name any miracles performed by Jesus. The author helpfully marks the ‘right’ answers in the report just in case our indignation at the attempted answers had not kicked in yet, including the following:

The principal mission of the Church is to:

  1. spread the Gospel
  2. care for the poor and hungry
  3. give example of love

22% of the children got this one ‘wrong’ – they didn’t pick the first one. It must be forty years since the abandonment of the Penny Catechism in Irish schools but there’s the sense here that if first year’s could learn about original sin and limbo then everything else would ‘fall into place’. You know, the easy stuff like ‘should I ask for more severance pay?’ or ‘when is it ok to go to war?’ If the respondents knew which Diocese their school was in and they could name the Bishop of that Diocese then they have the “knowledge which is essential for authentic Christian faith”.

Part of the problem with talking and writing about secularisation in Ireland is the insistence by some that the return of the days of reciting Catholic doctrine will get ‘us’ back to where ‘we’ were. No survey can tell us the truth, yes even the one in the Irish Times this week about control of primary education. If you think you ‘know’ the truth, you’ve already lost the argument. To round this off, here’s a cartoon which might help us all in the coming time:



3 thoughts on “The facts and faith.

  1. I wonder if there is confusion about facts and faith or between education (knowledge) and belief. A person could be very well educated in the facts of a religion without believing in it, just as many people are educated in the facts of evolution but don’t believe they are true.

  2. But then again, is faith the same as belief? I am neither an expert in philosophy or theology to answer that question.

  3. Thanks for the comments, HM. I agree that one can be well educated about religion and not have to believe but I guess what I am trying to relate in the post is that faith cannot be tested empirically through a survey where respondents have neither the background knowledge or the interest in this form of knowledge.

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