Lots of Americans say they’re religious, but a new poll finds many of them don’t actually know that much about world religions—their own included. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey by the Pew Forum found that U.S. atheists and agnostics, along with Jews and Mormons, are actually more conversant than Christians in many faith-related facts.
While that basic takeaway is rich with irony—some of the least religious people know the most about religion—it confirms what some atheists have long suspected, and a few of them are bursting with pride about the results (which for them is not a sin, of course). Dave Silverman, the president of American Atheists, told Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times:
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
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.
Jeffrey Weiss at Politics Daily quibbles with the survey’s approach—“Too many [of the questions] read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit,” he writes—but he notes that the results line up in a way with previous surveys that reveal a related phenomenon:
Academics call it the Religion Congruence Fallacy: In survey after survey, year after year, Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend not to act like it.
To take an easy set of examples: Conservative Protestants are no less likely than other Protestants to have been divorced, to have seen an X-rated movie in the last year, or to be sexually active even if they aren’t married. Even though their church teaches strongly that all three practices are wrong.
Maybe that’s because many of us don’t know all that much about the faith tradition we say we profess—or what makes it distinctive from any other.
Ignorance about our own or other religions is not necessarily an American tradition: As Ted Widmer recently reminded us in the Boston Globe, even the men who wrote the Constitution were quite familiar with the Koran:
As usual, the Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.
Meanwhile, Steve Thorngate at the Christian Century suggests that atheists, agnostics, and Jews shouldn’t get too uppity about their good marks on the religion exam:
Atheists/agnostics and Jews didn’t actually do better on the Christianity questions than Christians did, just nearly as well—and considerably better on all the others. This is perfectly intuitive: minority groups know more about the majority than vice versa, because majority culture tends to define what counts as general knowledge. So most Jews know where Jesus was born, even though few Christians know much about Buddhism. Jesus makes the cover of one general-interest magazine or another ever month or so, and it only takes a couple shopping trips between Thanksgiving and New Year’s to accidentally memorize the words to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
What do you know about religion? Take the Pew Forum’s 15-question religious knowledge sample quiz and find out.
Utne Reader editorial intern Will Wlizlo contributed to this post.