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.