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Friday, October 01, 2010

Deaf ears, it is falling on them.

Pretty much everyone I know personally or who reads this blog and has access to an e-mail account has sent me word* of a recent study by the Pew Research Center that evaluates the degree of religious knowledge that most Americans possess. The reason why people have been sending me this study with such alacrity is, I think, because of one of its core findings- that atheists and agnostics pretty much know more about religion than any other group:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life. 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.


Woo-hoo, indeed. This should, one would think, help to dispel the wrong headed notion that atheists are atheists because we are ignorant of religion. To the contrary I would argue, now with the support of this research, that we are quite well informed on religious matters. Yet, it's important to keep in mind that atheists do not come out on top in all areas here:

On questions about Christianity -- including a battery of questions about the Bible -- Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge.


Thus, when we limit the area of concern to Christianity and the bible, atheists and agnostics, who average 6.7 correct answers, are bested by evangelical Protestants and Mormons. That said, it's important to note that the overall mean is 6.0, and the Christian mean is 6.2. Thus, atheists still score above average in their knowledge of Christianity and the bible, even outscoring most Christians. And this, of course, amuses me because it gives lie to the retort that atheist arguments against god are somehow too unsophisticated: as it turns out, many theists are startlingly ignorant of their own faith, so how sophisticated do we actually have to be?

If you're curious about how you'd do, there's a handy mini-quiz on the site. It doesn't include all the questions, and doesn't influence the data, but is diverting nonetheless. I took it and attained a near perfect score on my first try- 14 out of 15 correct:



I will leave it to you to guess which of the 15 questions I did not answer correctly, though I will add that my wife managed a perfect score. But she's awesome that way.

So why do atheists know so much? Some have suggested that this is because most atheists are converts from another faith. As such, having made a positive decision to become atheist, they most likely spent some time thinking/reading/researching the matter. David Silverman of the American Atheists even want so far as to suggest that the best way to produce an atheist was to educate them about religions. I don't disagree with this notion, but I think it overlooks another important force: proselytizing.

I do not, of course, mean the efforts of atheists to convert others. By and large, and with a few prominent exceptions, that just isn't our gig. No, what I mean is the efforts of others to convert us. If there's one thing I learned very, very quickly as an atheist, it's that there is little respect for our perspective, and little reluctance to try and convince us of the "error" of our ways. As a result, before I even got to college I'd heard a wide variety of "you should believe in god because..." arguments, which in turn necessitated that I consider them and decide whether or not they were valid.** Thus, in a weird sort of turn of events, the entire world becomes to the atheist a course in comparative religions- everyone, no matter how weird their strain of faith, tries to convert you and you both learn about their arguments, and develop responses. If someone could emerge from this process without a fairly solid knowledge of religion, their skill in maintaining willful ignorance exceeds my reckoning.

Given the awesomeness of this research, one might legitimately wonder why I have waited so long to comment. The reason, dear readers, is because I was waiting to see what our good friends at Conservapedia would do with the news. They, after all, hate the hell out of my fellow atheists, so how would they react to the news that in a religious trivia game, we unbelievers could probably own their asses? Well, the answer, as it turns out, is "not well":



Or, in plain human language:

The liberal columnist Clarence Page writes: "A new poll finds atheist and agnostics know more about religion than believers do. Maybe the pollsters weren’t asking the right questions."

Given that many atheists at Conservapedia have great difficulty spelling the words "atheist", "atheists" and "atheism" on Conservapedia talk pages, the competence of the pollsters is certainly a legitimate concern. If many atheists can't spell the word atheism, they surely cannot spell the word theism. Of course, many atheists may have a knowledge of religion that is a mile wide but a quarter inch deep. However, the ultimate test of religious competency for atheists will be when they stand before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ and not some religious trivial pursuit game designed by pollsters.

A note to Clarence Page's editor: You missed the misspelling of the word "atheists". [emphasis original]


Now, for the sake of argument I'm going to ignore the actual content of Clarence Page's article. This is mostly because he advances the bizarre argument that religious people would know more about religion if atheists, agnostics, and (let's face it) theists didn't work so hard to keep religion out of the public schools. There are layers of weirdness there that I just don't want to unravel. What I am going to do, however, is make an observation: when it turns out atheists are not ignorant of religion- that we actually are often more knowledgeable than theists- Conservapedia's reaction is to mock the spelling of a random columnist, imply that all atheists spell poorly, assert without evidence that we are, actually, really ignorant, and then threaten us with imaginary punishment.

Is that supposed to be convincing?

But then, what do you expect from a website whose idea of lampooning evolution is an animated gif of a flying cat? And yes, it's still there.

Atheists are not perfect and are not better than anyone else, but we at least appear to have the virtue of knowing what it is that we are rejecting. Now if only everyone else could be as knowledgeable about what it is that they are accepting, the world might just be an easier place to live in.

For more on this issue, head on over to Brad Wright's blog and get a more reasonable theistic perspective.


* I'm really not exaggerating here, either. There's a guy named mig (Hi Mig!!) who has been reading the entire f-ing archives of this blog from most recent to least recent and even HE sent me an e-mail to let me know about this thing. I have well and truly been informed about this study.

** Given that I am writing this as an atheist, you can probably surmise the outcome.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Ken Houghton said...

I figured you had seen it.

As with your wife, I also scored 15/15.

Betting line on the question missed would probably have "Friday" as the most likely missed answer. (Sundown ends the day.) At least, that was the one some guys at The American Prospect were missing.

Friday, October 01, 2010 2:00:00 PM  
Blogger scripto said...

14 out of 15 - I thought Jonathan Edwards was that guy who talks to dead people.

Saturday, October 02, 2010 8:55:00 AM  
Anonymous G.M. Jackson said...

If Christians dared to read the book of Joshua there would be no Christians left.

Saturday, October 02, 2010 1:10:00 PM  
Blogger mig said...

Yo, ssup?

For the record, I read upward the whole annotation of the Left Behind trainwreck before I decided to descend fully into the depths of Drektitude.

And I too missed the question on the Great Awakening, but it lead to a good wikipedia jaunt.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010 9:11:00 AM  

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