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MU Center on Religion and the Professions Seeks to Educate Americans on Religious Issues

Sept. 29, 2010

Story Contact(s):
Nathan Hurst, hurstn@missouri.edu, 573-882-6217

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Recent religious conflicts, such as the proposed mosque being built near New York’s Ground Zero and a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Quran, shows religious misunderstanding exists in the U.S. Debra Mason, professor of journalism studies at the Missouri School of Journalism and director of the Center on Religion and the Professions, says that a new Pew Research Center survey confirms the lack of religious knowledge in the country.

“The more you know about religion, the less likely you will be swayed by misinformation, and right now many people are being swayed,” Mason said. “We are in an era in which conflict about religion in the public sphere is at an extreme level.”

A new survey, “U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey”, by the Pew Research Center shows few people know even the most basic facts about religion. While nearly 75 percent of respondents called themselves Christians, fewer than 25 percent could name the first four books of the New Testament, also known as the Gospels. Fewer than 40 percent of respondents from all faiths correctly identified Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism.

Atheists and agnostics knew the most about other faiths, followed by Mormons and Jews. According to the survey, Americans believe that constitutional restrictions are stronger than they actually are, with more than two-thirds of respondents believing incorrectly that the Constitution prohibits public schools from offering courses on the Bible as literature.

As director of the Center on Religion and the Professions in the Missouri School of Journalism, Mason works to educate the public on understanding all faiths within professional settings. The center offers many resources that include online courses and training programs. The center’s extensive resource website includes the largest online list of religion-specific professional associations and dozens of profession-specific codes of ethics, a library of religious films, tool kits for religious literacy, and discipline-specific syllabi for those interested in teaching religion courses.

“If we can create more opportunities for people to be trained and if we can use the media as a way to help inform the public about religion, then we’ll be in a much better place down the road,” Mason said. “Journalists can help tremendously with ridding the country of the religious misinformation that exists.”

She said one of the biggest problems arises when media use broad terms and political nomenclature when describing different faiths.

“Religion is extremely diverse and complex, and any use of terms to paint any one faith with a broad, sweeping stroke is both inaccurate and untrue,” Mason said. “Broad descriptions aren’t the reality of any faith. Also, journalists should avoid descriptors such as ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ because these are political terms and you can’t apply political terms to religious beliefs.”

For more information on the Center on Religion and the Professions, visit www.religionandprofessions.com

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