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Stupid Is As Stupid Does

October 4, 2010
S. Michael Craven
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It is said that the test of true ignorance is our inability to recognize our own ignorance. (Or, in the words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”) In a New York Times opinion piece, columnist Errol Morris refers to it as “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What it Is.” Anosognosia is a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability. In the case of knowledge, you just don’t know what you don’t know.

Morris begins by reporting that Dr. David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology, came across a story in 1996 about a bank robbery and the subsequent arrest of the suspect, McArthur Wheeler.

According to the story, McArthur Wheeler—at 5 feet 6 inches tall, weighing 270 pounds—wasn’t the most obscure looking fellow. Despite his rather unique appearance, Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad daylight with no visible attempt to disguise himself. There he was on the bank’s surveillance camera with a gun, standing in front of the teller demanding money. Yet when arrested, Morris reports, “Wheeler was completely disbelieving. ‘But I wore the juice,’ he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video cameras” (Errol Morris, The New York Times, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What it Is,” June 20, 2010).

Upon reading this, the thought occurred to Professor Dunning: “If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber.”

So Dunning and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, organized a program of research. They published their results in 1999, arguing, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it [emphasis mine]. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.” This became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect—our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. 

According to the most recent research by the Pew Forum on Public & Religious Life, the church appears to be suffering some measure of the Dunning-Kruger effect as well. 

Previous surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that the U.S. remains among the most religious of the world’s developed nations. However, the most recent “Religious Knowledge Survey” shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history, and leading figures of not only other major faith traditions but their own as well.

The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, a nationwide poll conducted from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, reports:

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey…. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

On questions about Christianity specifically—including a battery of questions about the Bible—Mormons scored 7.9 out of 12 correct on average while evangelical Protestants only averaged 7.3 and Catholics a mere 5.4 correct answers. 

In essence, Mormons know more about Christianity than Christians! I would hope this wouldn’t have to be said, but given the fact that some Christians see no conflict between their theology and that of Glenn Beck, perhaps it must: Mormonism, as proclaimed through the teachings of Joseph Smith, is a false religious cult not to be confused with historic Christianity. Mormonism, which teaches that God was once a man who achieved divinity¹—came to earth, fathered Jesus² and his brother, Satan³—does not follow Jesus of the Bible (1.Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345, 2. Doctrines of Salvation, by Joseph Fielding Smith, 1954, 1:18, 3. Mormon Doctrine, p. 163; Gospel Through the Ages, p. 15).

Unfortunately, I fear this is merely more surface evidence of a much deeper ignorance within the American church. Anecdotally speaking, I have repeatedly observed a profound lack of awareness and understanding among evangelicals of important theological concepts. Allow me to cite just two examples, soteriology (the study of the doctrines of salvation) and hermeneutics (the study of biblical interpretation).

Beyond lacking basic Bible knowledge, I find that few Christians possess a coherent theological understanding, meaning knowledge of God that is, at the very least, consistent with itself. For example, I meet many evangelicals who have either never heard of Calvinism or Arminianism or know little or nothing of their respective tenets and core disagreements. And yet, these are the two main Protestant schools of soteriology. As a result, many evangelicals unwittingly blend these opposing soteriological positions to form a theology that is often self-contradictory—but they cannot see the contradictions (i.e. anosognosia).

Additionally, I encounter many evangelicals who are unfamiliar with the two theories of biblical interpretation (or hermeneutics): Dispensationalism and Convenantalism. I find that many embrace elements of these theologies that differ and yet know nothing of the differences and how they affect their knowledge of God, their missiology, and even their understanding of the gospel.

These are only two areas of serious theological understanding in which we seem to suffer anosognosia. We are unaware of our “disability” of understanding because we do not know what we do not know.

Suffice it to say, too many Christians have an inadequate knowledge of the core theological concepts and ideas that form the foundation of the Christian faith. This is far more serious than biblical illiteracy or simply not knowing how many books are in the Bible or where the story of David and Goliath is found. Instead, theology is an essential aid in our sanctification and leads us beyond just knowing things about God to actually knowing God.

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

For resources that are helpful to growing your theological understanding, refer to our list of recommended books.

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Response from : Ken Quick  

October 4, 2010 10:48 AM

Another good article, Michael. In my experience, it's even worse than you describe. When I try and discuss soteriology or hermeneutics with my Armenian/Dispensationalist acquaintances, they don't know what I'm talking about. When I begin to explain it to them (and their incongruous "buffet" beliefs), their immediate response is "that doesn't matter" or "doctrine divides" etc. I find this far more discouraging than any other aspect of my Christian walk. I expect ignorance and disinterest from the unregenerate, but from professing Christians it is hard to understand. It's ironic that as a reformed/covenantal person I'm constantly accused of being "narrow minded" and "legalistic" by people who are completely unwilling to discuss doctrine and don't feel in any way obliged to 'correct' my as a fellow Christian. Prayer is the only answer.

Response from : Judy  

October 4, 2010 3:09 PM

I agree completely with what you have said. But, merely pointing out that we have a problem doesn't fix it. How do we change it? How do we teach theology when few people...including pastors....have little knowledge of the subject? Don't we, shouldn't we, have a all volunteer corp of people to teach Bible Study/Sunday School?

Response from : Pastor Pierre  

October 5, 2010 11:17 AM

I agree with the premise of the article. I do think we need to go even further in this discussion, though. I would love a follow-up article describing a solution for the church (not the bible college or seminary) that would help change this situation.

I am "Calvinist" in my soteriology, but Dispensational (to a point) in my hermeneutic. So I may be an odd duck here, but that is a different issue. :)

As a pastor I have actually started teaching a simplified "systematic theology" for our mid-week service. I have also noticed a general lack of interest and a dwindling attendance. So the issue must be addressed. How do you feed Christians something they don't want? It seems that Christians are very concerned with getting something for them, right now, that they can use to help them in their struggles. While I can see that as being selfish, I can also see that as being practical. They don't see the connection between a discussion of Dispensational/Covenant beliefs and their unsaved co-worker that they are trying to reach with the Gospel or their teenage son's struggle with pornography.

I believe that what has happened is we have separated the theology from the practical. I don't think all the blame is on "stupid" people. I think part of the blame is on "us" - pastors, teachers, professors, scholars. We have allowed for this divide and even advanced it. In some ways, the divide is comfortable. My theology can be my baby and I don't have to deal with the "real life" issues of what my theolgy actually means. I believe this is where we must change. We need men and women who know theology and can teach it to others in a way that brings it to the ground. In a way where it makes sense and actually makes a difference in people's lives.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

In Christ,

Response from : Selase  

October 5, 2010 1:53 PM

This is true. True because i see this in my own life. But i thank God that I am becoming better equipped day after day. Frankly i don't see how Christians can make convincing claims about their faith in the 21st century if they do not understand with absolute certainty, the very foundations of what they believe. i think the emphasis on the place of reason-the mind and the soul in our sanctification has been watered down in latter years through extreme and unbalanced emphasis on the spirit. I am an African in the Southern continent where Christian is supposed to be having a massive influence on all things. Unfortunately for me, the gospel i received and the kind that is preached everyday,considers reason as not important, one that is to be treated almost as canal. The truth is that with time the conditions that we will experience here will be very similar to that in the western world. God help us

Response from : Denise Matsumoto  

October 5, 2010 4:39 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with your article. Many of us do the same. I see this "Anosognosia" played out in the lives of families. According to research, most parents think they are fulfilling their Duet. 6 role. When they are in fact ignorant to the fact that they aren't doing it at all. Maybe you could expand on this topic.


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