Atheists know more about religion than believers says poll

"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.


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  • Even with the ancient ways of saying make peace and do necessary work such as Isaiah 2-4 which comes from the Holyland and says, 'and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore'. That is clearly a Christian believer.

    To which V.I. Lenin says to the comrades, don't be Philistines. In other words don't betray the holy word of the saviours of the world, and obey that ancient call for socialism.
    In the modern world we can look to the Basle conference of 1912, and the explanation of the scientific socialists, that if the Imperialist countries unleash an aggressive war against the working peoples of the world for resources, then all socialists must take up the banner of armed struggle for liberation, and dismantle the war machine and its manufactury to fully put and end to war forever as against the worlds' peoples, and build a new society based on socialism, and usher in the era of perpetual peace.

    Simply put the atheists have a plus and minus mathematically on this question. The real non-believers who believe in nuclear weapons and nuclear war are the philistinians, and are doing the devils work on earth.

    Six overkill of the planets life (a full exchange of nukes) is what they portend victory to be. That is unjust atheistism. The world's religions cannot fullfill the central core visions of the need for world peace and justice without using a vision, theory, and practice of dismantling the WMD, and that includes banning and dismantiling nuclear weapons forever.

    To that Mao-tse-tung agrees, and goes so far as to say that China will host or be hosted at a political meeting with one item on the agenda---the complete and thorough dismantling of all nuclear weapons on planet earth. He further says the diference of the communists parties from all the other parties is that they are all dedicated to the ending of war forever on the planet as against people.

    So lets face the material reality--- the Empires have being maurading around the planet for thousands of years spreading the false ideas of might makes right, Unilateralism, pre-emptive strikes, and some people take a wrongheaded aplication of religion to believe that they can win with a nuclear war. That is not materially possible. So the real 'so-called atheists' are only smarter if they believe that it is false religion to bless nuclear weapons and aggressive war.

    The First Canadian Division believes in scraping the war machine and its manufactory before the world is destroyed in a nuclear holocaust. The true believers in ancient and modern times are the ones that would save the planet by ending the war machine and its manufactury.

    Posted by jon, 10/07/2010 1:14am (5 years ago)

  • The points made in the article, rather than being self-congratulatory to atheists, are actually correct. For example, the questions about world religions--who celebrates what, which god is associated with which--help to illustrate whether or not people have simply taken the religion with which they were born and not looked further, or if they've studied something else and contemplated whether or not theirs is actually correct and worth believing.

    There are about a dozen questions on Christianity, enough to establish whether or not people know what they're talking about, and whether they actually know what they believe--does your religion teach that Communion is real or symbolic?, etc.

    Nothing Silverman says could not be derived from the poll itself.

    Posted by Matt, 10/04/2010 10:53am (5 years ago)

  • If you're going to pat the atheists on the back for being so wise about religion, you might also include in your article what that mysterious survey actually contained. Having read the survey myself, I can say that it is mostly about politics, history, and structure, with only a few questions that could be considered as dealing with religious content, and even less dealing with Christianity. In fact, by my count, out of at least 65 questions, there are only two questions that might not have been answered by someone merely listening to the news (44, 45). Giving "a religious question" a broader definition could get one up to 7 questions, if practices are included, or even up to 12 questions, if merely knowing about the religion's schedules and festivals is good enough.

    Being able to name five books from the Bible is indeed some indication that the respondent knows that there is a Bible, but it is not a very good proxy for whether that person actually knows what is taught in the Bible. One need not be a gospel scholar to know the content of the Golden Rule, and of the 10 Commandments, and be able to tell the difference. Most would know that without any contact with organized religion. It is part of our national culture.

    The only serious question about detailed religious content was perhaps chosen also as a way to mock a major religion. One might conclude that this survey was written by secularists for secularists. It should not be too surprising that atheists would do reasonably well on such a questionnaire.

    Posted by Kent Huff, 10/03/2010 3:02pm (5 years ago)

  • Mick,

    I believe the point of the article wasn't to suggest that some people are inferior and some people are superior. Most people know that there is a big difference between education and intelligence; you'll find many people who are educated but who are stupid, and many people who are, for whatever reason, uneducated and uninformed but who possess an amazing amount of intelligence.

    This article actually speaks highly, in a roundabout way, of people in general. Some beliefs are ludicrous; many of the things religions teach are absurd. The reason that the very religious are that way, at least in part, it seems, is because they have not had the luxury of a good education. Racism is a big deal in our society, as others have noted. Hispanics and Black people in America--through no fault of their own--have been crammed into the worst schools, the most wretched conditions--all thanks to the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and now simple economic, institutional racism. Thus, one would expect that the rate of believers in those communities would be higher.

    Posted by Michelle, 10/01/2010 11:45am (5 years ago)

  • And to add, I don't have anything against using statistics to make rankings, just giving them weight to judge a group as inferior in some way. If anything, this survey just proves the need for more teaching of comparative religion.

    Posted by Mick Diddams, 10/01/2010 12:44am (5 years ago)

  • here's the link:

    Posted by Mick Diddams, 09/30/2010 9:45pm (5 years ago)

  • The survey had separate categories for "Black Protestant" and "Hispanic Catholic", and these were the two lowest scoring. The article could have just as easily been titled "white people know more about religion..." but this would have caused more understandable outrage. The gravity of a chart ranking humans by their religion and this article emphasizing the inferior knowledge of certain religious groups should be clear.

    Please, let's not rank people or do anything to divide based on religion. This is the logic of the Israeli occupation and the invasion of Iraq. Its a slippery slope that already denies rights to millions because "they can't be trusted" or "they celebrate terrorism" in the case of Muslims.

    I don't think that you fall into the category of people who think like this, but the same ideas have been used in probably the opposite way as you mean them.

    Posted by Mick Diddams, 09/30/2010 9:43pm (5 years ago)

  • A really good article, and its points certainly conform to my own experience. I know very few religious people who have even an inkling as to what their religion actually claims.

    And the Evolutionary Psychology link leads to a really amazing study.

    Thank you!

    Posted by Dave Cunningham, 09/30/2010 7:50pm (5 years ago)

  • @Eric G

    The twin prongs of religion and racism have held back the United States in ways that probably cannot be calculated.

    Posted by Sam Clemens, 09/30/2010 5:47pm (5 years ago)

  • It should come as no surprise that the advanced nations of Western Europe are the most secular (i.e., least percentage of church-going people and professed believers) and also have much higher levels of education, healthcare, social safety net, worker protection, etc.

    Posted by Eric G, 09/30/2010 5:08pm (5 years ago)

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