The Gray Lady Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

by John Holbo on September 28, 2010

If she is going to be complaining about lack of erudition under headlines like this:

On Basic Religion Test, Many Doth Not Pass

Hat tip: Belle (she was just standing right next to me, so I can’t link to it). “Did they learn about religion from a bunch of old Thor comics?” Belle wants to know.

Speaking of which, our daughters actually use ‘doth‘ in this wrong way quite a bit, because I bought them Mini Marvels [amazon], which is pretty good.

I cut off the final joke: namely, Loki actually is wearing baggy pants. But I think it’s funnier if the joke is just about systematic abuse of language.

UPDATE: Yon Gray Lady Hath Fixethed It.



y81 09.28.10 at 1:02 pm

The cartoon reminds me of taking my daughter to church (or to Grandma’s) over the years. I always had to say, “Stretch your hands up over your head,” and she would endeavor to raise her hands without letting her shoulders rise. (The point being that your shirt must touch your skirt or pants even when your put your hands over your head.)

The article doesn’t reprint the quiz. I wonder how the average Times reporter would do. Not very well, I suspect. The Times is always good for howlers about witches being burned in colonial New England and the like.


Ben Alpers 09.28.10 at 1:06 pm

They have (or should I say “doth”) changed the headline to something more bland and grammatically correct:

Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans

Incidentally, they have put six of the questions up as a quiz here.


Earnest O'Nest 09.28.10 at 1:19 pm

Little people doth protest. Bearded people looketh many bad.


Sufferin' Succotash 09.28.10 at 1:21 pm

Quiz wasn’t exactly an excruciating test of religious expertise.
[Disclosure: I think I’m an agnostic, but I don’t really know… :)]


John Holbo 09.28.10 at 1:31 pm

“They have (or should I say “doth”) changed the headline to something more bland and grammatically correct:”

Wow. I doth get results! Excuse me. I mean : rethultsth. (I have a cold.)


Kieran Healy 09.28.10 at 1:31 pm

Jesus Christ Himself would only have scored 2/6 on that test, so I don’t know what they think they’re proving. They’re doth proving, I mean.


chgo_liz 09.28.10 at 2:10 pm

Think that one through, Kieran.

“Jesus Christ Himself would have only scored 2/6 on that test”. Hmm. That would be the Son of God, AKA 1/3 of the Trinity. Not so omniscient after all, huh? In fact, a failure on the very subject matter he should be able to ace with one hand tied behind his back (or nailed to a cross).

It’s hard keeping all the fantastical stories straight in your mind, I’m sure.


y81 09.28.10 at 2:22 pm

In a serious vein, following what Prof. Healy (@6) hast saidst, one of the commenters at Marginal Revolution noted that evangelical Christians should, rationally, score low on questions about other world religions–no point studying something you know is false–and do pretty well on questions about Christianity. Just as most Crooked Timber readers wouldn’t do so well on a quiz about Intelligent Design or Ron Paul’s economic theories. And the survey shows that.

So, to answer Prof. Healy, I guess the quiz results prove that evangelical Christians are behaving rationally. Call Rodney Stark.


Ginger Yellow 09.28.10 at 2:34 pm

Ooh, this sort of thing annoys me almost as much as fake Cyrillic writing, <a href="; particularly when it doesn’t even use real Cyrillic characters.


Salient 09.28.10 at 2:43 pm

Three questions on Christianity, two questions on Islam, and one question on Constitutional law. Diversity is awesome.


Russell Arben Fox 09.28.10 at 3:48 pm

I just wonder how the surveyors defined “agnostic.” Did the respondent have to self-identify as such (meaning they would know and are comfortable with the word), or was everyone who simply reported “not that interested in religion” just lumped into that category? If the latter, I find the results surprising. Given demographic realities, it’s not particularly unexpected to find that Jews, Mormons, and atheists demonstrate a decent degree of education about their own or other religious traditions, but “not very religious” covers an awful lot of socio-economic territory.


Trey 09.28.10 at 4:29 pm

You can take the entire quiz here. Some of the questions are ridiculous in their assumptions about background knowledge — for instance, questions about the specific roles that certain figures play in the Bible are asked next to questions such as “[i]n which religion is Vishnu a prominent figure?” followed by two questions about Supreme Court rulings about religion.


Scott Martens 09.28.10 at 4:30 pm

I’m with Russell — I note that the included graphic lists “atheists/agnostics” as one category, and “nothing in particular” as another with a much lower score. Self-identified users of hoity-toity Greek words are probably better educated and informed than the average on most subjects. And Jews go to some trouble to separate self-identification as Jewish from having strong religious convictions. I would have liked to see a correlation with the frequency of religious service attendance — something Pew is sensible enough to have actually done — but asking the NY Times to provide useful information in understanding cited statistics is probably asking too much of them.

Having grown up in an Evangelical home (sorta), I know that the picture you get of other faiths, even other Christians, is very distorted and often nonsensical, even in environments that are relatively liberal and tolerant. I would hardly be shocked to find that that is true of other faiths too. As for the Mormons, they take their missionary focus awfully seriously and score disturbingly well on knowledge of foreign cultures and languages. I could certainly see the same holding true for their knowledge of other faiths. This may disproportionately reflect a relatively educated elite rather than the bulk of Mormons, but that might be true in this survey too.


Scott Martens 09.28.10 at 4:49 pm

Forsooth, Pew is beslashdotted. But before it went down, I saw a graphic that looked like it showed almost no difference in average score between frequent and rare church-goers. URL:

That actually does surprise me.


Ben Alpers 09.28.10 at 4:59 pm

@11: Thanks for that link, Trey. It’s actually 15 of the 32 questions used in the phone survey. The whole survey can be downloaded here.

I got 15 out of 15, but then again, I’m an agnostic/atheist/Jew (depending on how I feel on any given day), so I suppose I ought to do well.


Jim Harrison 09.28.10 at 5:32 pm

What I’d really like to know is how many Americans think that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same god. It would also be highly relevant to discover what Americans think the Muslims traditionally believe about the status of Christianity and Judaism.

I don’t think that multiple choice items are a very good way to explore people’s understanding of religion, but the Pew survey was mostly just about familiarity with names.


Tim Wilkinson 09.28.10 at 10:04 pm

the Pobble who hast no toes


Tim Wilkinson 09.28.10 at 10:08 pm

Ignore that – I’ve just looked it up on Google and it looks like it may have been a typo in my edition of the QWQ. Was always baffled by it but assumed it was some but if random nonsensicalness on Lear’s part. I have learned something, I think.


Tim Wilkinson 09.28.10 at 10:08 pm

but if -> bit of


Dee from Texas 09.29.10 at 4:33 pm

I downloaded and read the survey. It states that the surveyer is to ask to speak to the youngest member of the household–sometimes youngest male, sometimes youngest female. (not kids I guess) Nobody’s mentioned this before but I should think it would be significant for the results.


surveyor 09.29.10 at 11:14 pm

@Dee from Texas: It states that the surveyer is to ask to speak to the youngest member of the household—sometimes youngest male, sometimes youngest female. (not kids I guess) Nobody’s mentioned this before but I should think it would be significant for the results.

Not really. It’s a standard survey technique necessary to get a reasonable sample young people. If you don’t do that, almost everyone you talk to will be older than 35, and most will be older than 50. Pew’s methodology is usually quite rigorous.

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