Love, hate, apathy, faith

One of the most important facts to grasp about the small, but growing, flock of Americans who call themselves unbelievers is that most of them are converts. "When you meet people who identify themselves as 'atheists' or 'agnostics,' these are people who are taking a stand, they're committing themselves to a strong stance in this culture," said Greg Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "People just don't wind up in the atheists-and-agnostics camp. They are there for a reason."

While some came of age in atheistic homes, the vast majority of atheists -- four out of five in one survey -- were raised as Baptists, Catholics, Jews or in some other faith, he said. Then they changed their minds, usually after intensely personal experiences, years of reading or both.

"When you say you're an 'atheist' that usually means that you've made a choice," said Smith.

This is a crucial fact to remember when reading news reports about the recent "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" released by the Pew Research Center.

While the New York Times headline calmly stated, "Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans," the Los Angeles Times was more typical of the national norm, offering a zinger that said, "If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist." USA Today proclaimed, "Unbelievers aced out the faithful when it comes to religious knowledge."

In this survey, 3,412 Americans -- 18 years old and up -- were asked 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity, other world religions and America's laws that govern faith and public life. Jews, Mormons, atheists and agnostics were "oversampled to allow analysis of these relatively small groups."

Overall, atheists and agnostics -- who were grouped together -- answered an average of 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly. The score for Jews was 20.5 and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scored 20.3. There was a sizable gap, at that point, before reaching white evangelical Protestants, who scored 17.6, and white Catholics, who scored 16.0. Members of liberal Protestant churches scored 15.8.

The survey found that atheists and agnostics knew the most when asked about the beliefs of world religions. Mormons and evangelicals knew the most about the Bible and fine details of Christian beliefs.

Those who dug deeper found other complex dynamics at work, noted Smith. For example, while many noted that atheists and agnostics scored well, few commentators noticed the low score -- 15.2 -- earned by the much larger group of participants who choose the "nothing in particular" option when describing their beliefs.

This finding is significant in an age in which the number of Americans who describe themselves as "spiritual, but not religious" continues to rise. Some of the "nothing in particular" Americans are quite secular, said Smith, but others have their own "beliefs and religious practices that they say are quite important to them."

At the same time, it's important that believers who reported attending religious services once or more a week had higher levels of knowledge than those who attended less often. These scores rose higher when believers reported that they frequently read scripture, educational websites and books about religion. Believers who practiced their faith more often were also more likely to discuss religious issues with other people, further raising their scores.

The bottom line: People who hold strong beliefs about faith -- positive or negative beliefs -- seem to know more about religion than those who are less committed. Passion, not apathy, is what leads to knowledge.

Consider, for example, this crucial Catholic question. In one of the Pew survey's most surprising findings, 45 percent of the Catholics polled did not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine consecrated during the Mass are not merely symbols, but are believed to truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. However, nearly 70 percent of white Catholics who attended Mass once a week answered that question correctly.

"We already knew that Catholics who attend Mass every week act differently and even vote differently than other Catholics," said Smith. "What this survey shows is that Catholics who are more active in their faith think differently than other Catholics, too. ... Of course, it isn't surprising that people who enthusiastically practice their faith also know more about their faith, and even religion in general, than those who do not."

God and Al-Jazeera

Siti Fatimah was born a Muslim, but tried to change her name to Revathi Masoosai before marrying a Hindu man.

This created a crisis, since multi-ethnic Malaysia has both civic and Muslim courts. After the birth of the couple's daughter, the Muslim grandparents urged a Sharia court to give them custody of the baby. They won and Revathi was sent to a rehabilitation center for apostate, wayward Muslims.

"I will make her a Muslim child. That's why I took her," said the grandmother. "Her mother has no choice. ... She asked me if I can allow her to convert out of Islam. I said, 'No way, you must remain in the religion. You cannot leave, it's the law here.' "

This kind of human drama makes for gripping television news. At one point, the Hindu husband briefly managed to talk to his wife through a metal gate before being confronted by a guard -- on camera.

Welcome to Al-Jazeera English, a news channel that few Americans get to see. It is operated by the controversial global network that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the "mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda."

Al-Jazeera English has struggled to find a U.S. audience because cable-television executives believe Americans are not ready to see world events -- many tied to religion -- through a Middle Eastern lens. Also, it's easy to question the perspective of a network funded by a billion dollars or more from His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, emir of Qatar.

But Americans need to hear the kinds of voices featured on a network that reports from the developing world back to the west, said Nigel Parsons, a BBC and Associated Press Television News veteran who is managing director of Al-Jazeera English.

"But it's not just about telling the rest of the world what is happening from inside the Middle East out. It's also about telling the rest of the world about America," he said, at a National Press Club forum in Washington, D.C. "America is often accused of not understanding the outside world, ... of being very insular and of not understanding the events that shape its policies."

However, it's possible to turn that equation around, because the rest of the world "actually understands very little about the United States," he said. "We hear about New York, we hear about Hollywood and we hear about things that go on inside the Beltway here in D.C. We don't hear much about that big bit in the middle."

The result is a kind of two-sided blind spot.

On one side, said Parsons, are millions of Al-Jazeera viewers around the world who previously had little or no chance to learn about "what makes America tick," including the diversity of religious and political beliefs found in U.S. churches, synagogues and mosques. On the other side, he is convinced that few Americans have been exposed to the variety of religious and political perspectives found in the many cultures of the Middle East and in the wider Islamic world.

That Al-Jazeera English report on the apostasy charges against Revathi Masoosai, for example, ended with a stark contrast. A "Sisters in Islam" spokeswoman backed the views of legal scholars who insist that Article 11 of Malaysia's constitution protects freedom of conscience and religion. But a conservative Muslim leader stood his ground, insisting that to "be a Malay is to be a Muslim" and that the nation will collapse if believers are free to convert to another faith.

The report ended with that question unresolved, which is the tense reality in Malaysia and many other parts of the Muslim world.

Parsons said it would be wrong to claim that Al-Jazeera English is promoting the spread of some form of "moderate Islam" -- a loaded label the network never uses -- because what is "moderate" in one Muslim culture would be called "apostasy" in others.

However, the network has pursued a "reformist agenda" that often clashes with state-controlled networks in the Middle East. Parsons proudly noted that Al-Jazeera has been forced, at one time or another, to leave almost every nation in the region -- except Israel.

"We are not going to see major changes in that part of the world overnight," he said. "Arguments and debate and dialogue are going to have to come first. We cannot afford to have news and information going in one direction and that's that."