My Take: O'Donnell's and America's First Amendment ignorance
October 20th, 2010
09:43 AM ET

My Take: O'Donnell's and America's First Amendment ignorance

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

It’s time for our politicians to take the religious literacy quiz.

In a debate on Tuesday with Democrat Chris Coons, Republican Senate candidate from Delaware Christine O’Donnell seemed to be learning, in real time and reluctantly, that the First Amendment prohibits the establishment of religion.

As Coons was arguing against the teaching of creationism in the public schools on the grounds that the First Amendment mandates the disestablishment of religion, O’Donnell said, “The First Amendment does? Let me just clarify: You’re telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?”

Coons, who seemed surprised by the question, responded by quoting chapter and verse:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” To which O’Donnell, channeling Homer Simpson, asked, “That’s in the First Amendment?”

As the author of Religious Literacy and adviser to the recent Pew Forum U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, each of which demonstrated the ignorance of Americans about most things religious, I am not surprised that candidates for the U.S. Senate seem as surprised to learn about the Bill of Rights as I am by the latest plot turns in "Glee." (Emma? With John Stamos? Really?)

In fact, in a quiz I gave Boston University students a few years ago, only 41 percent were able to name the free exercise clause, only 23 percent the establishment clause.

And in the recent Pew Forum religious literacy survey, American adults demonstrated that they had about as much of a grip on what the Supreme Court has said about religious establishment as does O’Donnell. Only 36 percent knew that public schools could offer comparative religion courses and only 23 percent knew that public school teachers could read from the Bible as an example of literature.

A few years ago, as I was traveling around the country arguing for religious studies courses in the public schools, I challenged journalists to start asking political candidates basic questions about religion. I don't care whether Mitt Romney is a Mormon, I said, but I do care whether he knows which religion predominates in Indonesia, and in India.

I also said that, if politicians are going to invoke Christianity and the Bible to support their positions on abortion and immigration and stem-cell research, then voters have the right to know whether they know anything about that tradition and that scripture.

Far less controversial than that stance is this: voters have a right to know whether candidates for the U.S. Congress have even a passing acquaintance with the Constitution.

“That’s in the First Amendment?” She Who Would Be Senator asked. Yes it is, O’Donnell, yes it is.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Christianity • Church and state • Delaware • Education • Opinion • Politics • Polls • Religious liberty • United States

soundoff (209 Responses)
  1. Mike Sr

    The Effect Problem

    There are two other "Universal Laws" that we see demonstrated in everything we examine in the world around us.

    1. There is no new mass/energy coming into existence anywhere in the universe, and every bit of that original mass/energy is still here.

    2. Every time something happens (an event takes place), some of the energy becomes unavailable.

    The First Law tells us that matter (mass/energy) can be changed, but can neither be created nor destroyed. The Second Law tells us that all phenomena (mass/energy) continually proceed to lower levels of usefulness.

    In simple terms, every cause must be at least as great as the effect that it produces—and will, in reality, produce an effect that is less than the cause. That is, any effect must have a greater cause.

    When this universal law is traced backwards, one is faced again with the possibility that there is an ongoing chain of ever-decreasing effects, resulting from an infinite chain of nonprimary ever-increasing causes. However, what appears more probable is the existence of an uncaused Source, an omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, and Primary, First Cause.

    October 22, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
  2. Mike Sr

    Survey data collected from 1986 to 2005 revealed disturbing information about scientific reporting across a host of fields. Almost two percent of scientists personally admitted to having “fabricated, falsified, or modified data or results.”1 And when asked about their colleagues’ actions, the falsification figure jumped to 14 percent.

    Additionally, up to 72 percent perceived their fellow scientists as guilty of other questionable research practices. An analysis of the survey data published online in PLoS One concluded that “it appears likely that this is a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct.”1

    This study verifies the sentiment of the late evolutionary paleontologist Stephen Gould, who wrote in 1994, “The stereotype of a fully rational and objective ‘scientific method,’ with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology.”2 In other words, scientists are human and capable of deception, just like people in any other field.

    The published analysis also found that medical and pharmacological researchers reported a higher rate of misconduct, “supporting fears that the field of medical research is being biased by commercial interests.”3

    If commercial interests can encourage the manipulation of research data, then why not other ideological interests? There have been many examples where a “scientific” conclusion was more the result of evolutionary bias than it was a deduction from the data that was examined. Fossils such as Piltdown man, Java man, Nebraska man, as well as embryonic recapitulation, vestigial organs, and the supposed evolutionary behavior of the peppered moth, were all widely-accepted evidence for evolutionary concepts until they were debunked by later research.

    These are historical examples of data manipulation to fit a preselected conclusion. Coupled with the find that “around 46 per cent [of scientists] say that they have observed fellow scientists engage in…presenting data selectively or changing the conclusions of a study in response to pressure,”3 they demonstrate the potential fallibility of scientists and their dependence, like all other people, upon starting assumptions in their interpretation of data.

    Of course, not all scientific investigation is skewed. On the contrary, the vast majority of descriptive studies, and most experimental investigations, yield good and useful results. However, just because a report appears in a scientific journal does not make it entirely trustworthy. It is wise to keep this in mind when it is declared that some aspect of evolution is true because “science” has proved it.


    Fanelli, D. 2009. How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS ONE. 4 (5): e5738.
    Gould, S. J. 1994. In the Mind of the Beholder. Natural History. 103 (2): 14.
    Devlin, H. One in seven scientists say colleagues fake data. Times Online. Posted on timesonline.co.uk June 4, 2009, accessed June 18, 2009.

    October 22, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
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