Non-Believers Know the Most About Religion

| 9/29/2010 12:54:17 PM


You’re at a cocktail party and the conversation takes an unexpected left-turn toward the topic of the world’s religions. How would you fare? Could you namedrop the three men thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel? Or recite the Five Pillars of Islam? Do you know if a public school teacher can read from the Bible as an example of literature? If you don’t believe in God, you’d probably have a better chance of navigating this conversation intelligently. A new study from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that atheists and agnostics have a broader base of religious knowledge than any other religious group.

That’s not to say that believers don’t know anything about their own faiths, but rather that atheists and agnostics are well versed in a wider range of religious topics. Mormons and evangelical Protestants, for example, are very knowledgable on questions specifically relating to the Bible and Christianity, and atheists and agnostics aren’t far behind. According to the survey results:

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. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.

The study also revealed a few other intriguing facts about America’s collective knowledge. According to Pew, many Americans know the general history of Mormonism and more than a third of us read scripture at least once a week.

Pew has prepared a sample quiz, so you can find out how you stack up. (Full disclosure: the author of this post scored 13 out 15 and identifies as a curious agnostic.) 

(Thanks, Kottke.) 

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