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)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Stephen Hawking Enters the Fray

I read A Brief History of Time some time after my year in Israel and it made me question God's existence for the first time in my life. It never came out and said God didn't exist, and in fact he threw in bits about "understanding the mind of God" (c.f. Einstein's "God does not play dice") but I was pretty sure he was an atheist.

In his new book The Grand Design, he's apparently more explicit:
Physics was the reason for the Big Bang, not God, according to scientist Stephen Hawking.

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing," the professor said in his new book, in a challenge to traditional religious beliefs.

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going," he wrote in his book "The Grand Design," extracts of which are printed in London newspaper The Times.

The book, co-written by American physicist Leonard Mlodinow and published next week, sets out to contest Sir Isaac Newton's belief that the universe must have been designed by God as it could not have created out of chaos.

Newton, genius that he was, was crazy for religion.

I wonder if A Brief History was more effective for me as an invitation towards atheism than it would have been if it were more explicit. I wasn't looking to challenge my religious beliefs, just to learn something about cosmology. And maybe my religious defense mechanisms weren't activated in the same way they would have been if I'd picked up, say, a Dawkins book first. A Brief History opened my mind to atheism and Dawkins sealed the deal a year or two later. But would I have even read Dawkins if Hawking hadn't opened my mind first?