Pew: Atheists and Agnostics Best Informed on Religion

A study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Americans who don’t believe in God scored better on a religious study quiz than those who identify with a specific religion.

The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, a nationwide poll of 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, found that out of 32 questions related to various religions, atheists and agnostics typically got the most correct responses. Jews and Mormons also scored higher than Protestants and Catholics.

However, while atheists and agnostics performed highest on religious questions overall, on questions related to Christianity, Protestants and Catholics out-performed all other groups. So, basically, they know more about their own faith than about those of other religions. For those who want to test themselves, a shorter version of the quiz is here.

One thing that jumped out at me, which I see also caught the attention of others, is that the results don’t distinguish between those who are devoutly religious and those who might only attend a religious service once in a while. This strikes me as pretty significant because for those who attend church, say, only on Christmas and Easter, the practice of their faith may be more cultural than an adherence to a particular belief system. For them, faith and dogma really aren’t that important to their daily lives. 

Another interesting aspect to the study is not how woefully ignorant Americans may be about religion, but how ignorant we are as a group on the First Amendment. As Laurie Goodstein reported in the New York Times:

One finding that may grab the attention of policy makers is that most Americans wrongly believe that anything having to do with religion is prohibited in public schools.

An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.

But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.

The survey’s authors concluded that there was “widespread confusion” about “the line between teaching and preaching.”

But back to the subject of atheists and agnostics being better informed on religious issues in general, Goodstein goes on to quote David Silverman of the advocacy group American Atheists. 

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “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.”

Silverman raises a valid point. When I was probably in fourth grade, I was a faithful Christian and so, I decided I should read the bible. I never got all the way through it, but I did pick up quite a few interesting things. It was where I first learned the concept of incest.

Also, the story of Abraham being told to offer up his only son Isaac as a burnt offering was nothing short of terrifying and kept me awake at night. For years, I feared that God would send down an angel to test my faith and try as I might, I didn’t think that I could bring myself to prove my devotion by killing someone I loved. Eventually, this knowledge of the bible was one of the primary reasons I started questioning my religious beliefs.

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Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.