“The more you know, the less you believe.” A study released September 28 by the Pew Research center seems to have proven the above quote, by American Atheists president David Silverman, correct.
“Atheism,” says Silverman, “is the product of education.”
According to the poll, atheists and agnostics know more about the world’s religious faiths than anyone else. Out of 32 questions, non-believers answered, on average, 20.9 correctly. Jews followed at a close second with a score of 20.5, while the national average was 16.0.
The group most associated with heavy religious belief, white evangelical Protestants, scored only 17.6.
When questioned specifically about Christianity and the Bible, white evangelicals and Mormons scored the highest with an average of 6.7 questions right out of 12, but non-believers correctly answered only three-fifths of a question less than evangelicals and 1.2 less than Mormons. Atheists know more about Christianity than Christians overall do.
Why the disparity?
“What we see a lot of is that religion, people who follow religion, do not actually think about it very much,” Silverman told the World. “They don’t really wonder if they were born into the correct religion; they just assume it. Once they actually look into it, they become atheists.”
Silverman argued that when people actually spend time studying their religion, they see that it is “incompatible with the real world.”
“Christianity posits an all-loving, all-powerful, omniscient God,” Silverman answered, when asked for an example. “No matter how much you couch it, no matter how much you squint at it, an all-powerful, all-loving, omniscient God doesn’t mesh with world suffering, doesn’t mesh with AIDS, doesn’t mesh with cancer. It doesn’t mesh with natural disasters. An all-powerful God would be able to stop them; an all-loving God would want to stop them.”
Christians argue that everything in the world happens according to the plans of God, who moves in “mysterious ways,” that show goodness that we simply cannot understand. But “if God were all powerful, he could change his plan.”
One might not be surprised to find the average lay person unschooled in the religion in which he or she was raised. But what about the priests and pastors, those who have been to the seminary?
Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola, in an article for the journal Evolutionary Psychology, interviewed five non-believing preachers. Most of the religious leaders, who spoke to the researchers secretly, said that they thought they were the “tip of the iceberg” and that many more were secretly no longer able to believe. For these pastors, their lives have become interwoven with their former faith, and they are simply unable to come out of the closet.
Or, as Dennett puts it, “These are brave individuals who are still trying to figure out how to live with the decisions they made many years ago, when they decided, full of devotion and hope, to give their lives to a God they no longer find by their sides.”
In many ways, religion can be a nasty thing, with the faithful finding something terrible in each other’s religions. Christians often point to Muslims and their Koran, noting orders to kill non-believers and other atrocities. But anyone can point back. “Hell is really introduced in the New Testament,” Silverman notes. “That’s where you get into the whole concept of the all-loving God creating a place of eternal torment for those who don’t believe in Him, simply on that basis.”
Still, it’s easy enough to find genuinely good people in almost any religious group, people who would, for example, take great offense to a story in which the hero impregnates his own daughters (Genesis 19:30-38). This proven lack of knowledge of the subject by its adherents – the average Christian only answered about half of all questions about the Bible and Christianity correctly in the Pew poll – may help to explain the contradiction.