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Atheists Know More About Religion Than Religious Believers Do

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has come out with some very interesting results from a survey of American adults, testing their knowledge of “religion”. The survey found that atheists are are more knowledgeable about religion than religious believers are.

There was some question about whether this distinction is due to the fact that atheists are on average more educated that religious believers. However, when the survey results were statistically controlled for education the results came out the same. Atheists know more about religion even than equally well-educated religious believers.

Many people, upon reading of these results, have focused on what made atheists so knowledgeable about religion. An equally important question, however, is what makes religious believers so ignorant about religion.

One implication of the relative ignorance of religious believers about religion is that remaining religious requires some level of ignorance about the details of the basis of religious belief. The survey found that religious believers were astonishingly ignorant about their own religions. Forty percent of Catholics didn’t understand their own church’s teaching about the meaning of Communion, for example. Atheists knew more about the Ten Commandments than Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, did.

Another implication is that belief in one particular religion encourages ignorance about other religions. So, less than a third of Christians know who the gods Vishnu and Shiva are, while 72 percent of atheists do.

Christian groups have been pushing hard for the teaching of their own religion in public schools under the guise of “religious literacy”. The results of the Pew Center’s U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, however, suggest that if people truly want Americans to become more religiously literate, the last thing they ought to do is to follow the example of Christian organizations. Instead, people who are interested in helping Americans become genuinely more knowledgeable about religion ought to look to the example of how atheists learn to see what they’re doing right.

12 thoughts on “Atheists Know More About Religion Than Religious Believers Do”

  1. Jim says:

    The LA Times has a piece in which academics speculate about the psychological reasons for this pattern. But there is a good sociological reason to expect this: atheists are a small group, and small groups are forced through social interaction to not only be familiar with their own group’s set of knowledge, but also to be familiar with the larger group’s knowledge set. Larger groups are less likely to encounter the smaller groups and so can remain blissfully ignorant of their traditions. A Pew finding consistent with this theory is that Muslims and Jews — two other small religious groups in America — are also much more likely to answer religious questions correctly than American Christians.

  2. Tom says:

    As Spock (from the ol’ Star Trek) would say: “Fascinating, Jim.”

  3. deep thinker says:

    In my experience, true atheists are quite knowledgeable. Agnostics however are not; which makes sense too.

    1. J. Clifford says:

      The survey made a distinction between people who identify themselves as atheists or agnostics and people who just don’t think about religion much, categorizing themselves as “nothing in particular”. Still, even this “nothing in particular” group knows more about the categories of “world religions” and “Religion in public life” than Christians. Only in the category of “Bible and Christianity” did Christians know more than the group of religious indifferents.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I pity you people.. I pray that God will find you.

    1. Ralph says:

      I’m in the coat closet, hiding behind an old down parka. All you can see are some of my pants and my shoes. I’m breathing really quietly. I bet God can’t find me. Tee hee…

    2. Anonymous says:

      Lol….Now you just demonstrated your ignorance. Is that really the best you have ” Ill pray for you”? No need to be a pompous ass

  5. J. Clifford says:

    Well, if your god is like the people who purport to be his followers, then he’ll probably not be able to read the map to get to my house.

  6. Jacob says:

    You will find that the answer “Christian” is a default answer for many people. They have no idea what that means and dont care. Its just an answer

  7. Josh says:

    I scored better than the atheists and I am a Christian. Were not all ignorant.

  8. Ryan says:

    I think you will find, the reason for this is that once someone learns enough about religion they realise that it cannot be true and thus become Atheists.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Agreed. Anyone who examines religion with no agenda other than finding the truth will no doubt become atheist. Religion is for people that cant handle reality.

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