Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Atheists, Agnostics Most Knowledgeable About Religion

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn't identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

Atheists and agnostics -- those who believe there is no God or who aren't sure -- were more likely to answer the survey's questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey's measurement of religious knowledge -- so close as to be statistically tied.

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

Nothing really new here, but it's always fun to see.

(Hat tip: Half Sigma)

11 comments:

Ezzie said...

In general, people who are against something will 'know more' about it, because they are specifically looking to find points to disagree with or debate from.

I'd also be curious how atheists and agnostics would measure up against the more religious members of various religions - I'm sure that just as among Jews, there are varying levels of religiosity among Christians.

It is interesting that Jews are among the most knowledgeable on par with atheists/agnostics, especially in light of the other study that you once discussed about university's effect on religious belief.

Ezzie said...

In general, people who are against something will 'know more' about it, because they are specifically looking to find points to disagree with or debate from.

To clarify - that's not the only reason, but I do believe it to be a major one. I'd also venture that people who identify as atheist or agnostic by definition are the equivalent of the more religious members of any religion, and are more "anti" various religions and therefore would know more about them to be "anti". People who simply don't care would say as much.

sos said...

"In general, people who are against something will 'know more' about it, because they are specifically looking to find points to disagree with or debate from."

I imagine you are against Holocaust denial, but how much can you say you legitimately know about that subject? Are you an expert on the KKK? Antisemitism in Japan? If not, are you not strongly "anti" these things or do you simply not care?

It seems as though you are displaying the same confirmation bias that you are charging against the non-believers.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

In general, people who are against something will 'know more' about it

Do people who are against evolution know more about it? Not at all. Do people who are against communism or socialism know more about it? Sure doesn't seem like it. I don't think your hypothesis holds up.

I'd also be curious how atheists and agnostics would measure up against the more religious members of various religions

That would be an interesting question, I agree. However, "more religious" is a vague term. It could mean "goes to services more often" or "follows more rules" or, as Orthodox Jews use the term, "belongs to my denomination." Some religious like Judaism emphasize study (albeit with blinders on) while others emphasize things like faith and works only.

I'd bet a serious amount of money on an atheist versus a "very religious" Pentacostalist, for example, in a who knows more about Christianity contest.

It is interesting that Jews are among the most knowledgeable on par with atheists/agnostics, especially in light of the other study that you once discussed about university's effect on religious belief.

As the summary explained, education is an important factor, but the effect remains even after correcting for it. I assume Judaism's focus on learning (again, with blinders on, in Orthodox Judaism) as well as Judaism's minority status in America play a factor.

weird said...

Yes. Atheists are kind of obsessed with religion.

That's what crossed my mind when I saw that Dawkins and his foundation sponsered posters "God probably does not exist. Enjoy life".

i mean: most posters you see do not refer to god or religion in any way. The few that do are generally sponsored by some extremist christians and always seem kind of weird. To me, these Dawkins posters are in the same category.

Jewish Atheist said...

weird:

The atheists who are famous FOR BEING ATHEISTS aren't a representative sample of atheists. Obviously they (we?) are more likely to be focused on religion than the Lance Armstrongs, Warren Buffetts, and Billy Joels of the world.

Suzanne said...

If you don't know much about your religion, you'll never realize how flawed the religion is.

On Her Own said...

This rings really true.

I can't stand meeting people who know less about their own religion than I do, but it happens ALL THE TIME.

One thing that I've heard repeatedly by Christians: "Jesus wasn't Jewish! I hate when people say that!"

(And even though this article claims that Jews know the most of any other religious group, I can't even tell you how many Jews have told me that X is in the Torah when it's not OR that X isn't in the Torah when it clearly is. Not to mention all of the misconceptions many Jews have about other religions...)

I actually love meeting people of different faiths because it gives me new perspectives on religion, history, etc., but when they don't know the very basis of their own religion, that whole idea kind of goes to the dogs.

Random said...

Can't say I'm terribly surprised, I suspect

"American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum."

Is the key quote, it would be interesting to see what the results would be in somewhere like western Europe, where secularism is much more the default position. Because, especially when you compare the similar scores for Jews and Mormons here, it looks like what you are getting is that people who are more likely to be forced to defend their views are more likely to have a greater awareness of the arguments involved.

Incidentally, does anybody have a link to the actual questions asked? I'd like to see what my score is. I hope they're better phrased than the example given in the article though - I wouldn't identify Martin Luther as the key figure in the protestant reformation either, but then that's because I'm British and Henry VIII was much more important in our reformation.

Skeptitcher Rebbe said...

Random,

"it looks like what you are getting is that people who are more likely to be forced to defend their views are more likely to have a greater awareness of the arguments involved."

I agree that this is the key point. If you are an outsider or have beliefs that break with the norm you would be required to defend your views against those that oppose you. To do that you need to be educated on the subject.

You can say the same with conspiracy theorists that don't believe in the moon landing. They probably know more about the dates, people involved, etc and other observable facts about the moon landing event than most non conspiracy theorists. This is because they take a position that is opposed to the norm and as a result try to back up their claim by informing themselves about the event. Clearly their conclusions are incorrect but I wouldn't doubt that given a survey they would do much better percentage wise on answering questions about the moon landing even if they don't believe the event occured as documented. Sort of like how athiests might know that Catholics believe in transubstantiation but don't themselves believe it.

Here is the survey with the results:

http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

Anonymous said...

Personally, I haven't had any bad experiences from religious observance, and I don't have anything against it really. But the more I learned about my own religion as well as other ones, the more obvious it became that they were all stories made up by people to strengthen in-group cohesion. The common threads between them are there because they are the most effective ways to bind people together in that way.

Once that realization started, I wanted to learn more to clarify it. Once I learned enough I was then an atheist by default, there was really no choice in the matter. It makes perfect sense to me that atheists who went through the same process would know more about various religions. Those who know little or never really cared that much would not have a reason to question, and so it makes sense that they would stay religious.