A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the religious people. So what?

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report on how much Americans know about some religious facts; they have a online quiz version of their survey that’s making the rounds.

NPR reported on this in their story “Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious,” and the LA Times did as well in their story “Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says.” For some reason, the actual report from the Pew Forum is unavailable as I write, but much of the details can be found at the online quiz.

As their headlines indicate, both NPR and the LA Times find it remarkable that non-religious people know more answers to these questions about religious figures and demographics than religious people do. However, I find this completely unremarkable. Even a cursory reading of the details indicate that doing well on this test strongly correlates with educational level: the more education you have, the better you’ll do on this quiz. But this is also true of non-belief: the more education you have, the less likely you are to hold religious beliefs. “White Evangelical Protestants” actually do better than average (what most educated people think of when they think about religious Americans, I think). The religious groups with the least education–Black Protestant (read: Black) and Latino Catholic (read: Latino) do the worst. The religious group with the most education, Jews, do the best (I don’t know if Pew broke out non-theistic Jews from “Jews”).

One of the questions asked (in the online version) is who the religious figure is most associated with the Great Awakening. This was an incredibly important series of events and movements in US history and affected the shape of Protestant and other Christian practice and belief until the current day. But very few Protestants that I know consider this figure anything more than a historical figure; he’s a matter of history, not religious belief or practice. If you’ve gone to a lot of school, you’re more likely to have run across his name (of the 15 online questions, this is the least well known). Do you know the answer? It’s not unlikely you learned it in a (college level) history or American religion class.

Another one of the questions asks on what day the Jewish Sabbath begins.  Most people get this wrong (except Jews, who live–or have the memory of living–in the duality of the Jewish and Western calendars). But this feels like a bit of a trick question, requiring a secular or Western Christian understanding of the week. I think “Saturday” is a perfectly reasonable correct answer to this question. I got it “correct,” but this seems to indicate more about my test-taking skills (watch out for trick questions!) than my nuanced understanding of my co-religionists.

In the online quiz, the only especially interesting question is the appalling misunderstanding about whether a teacher can read from the Bible “as literature.” On average, only 25% know this is just fine (and, in general, who gets this right correlates positively with education, but no group gets this right more than 50% of the time).

Education correlates negatively with religious beliefs: this is not a new finding. In fact, it’s found right in the Bible (sort of), when Paul writes to an early church in Corinth:

Consider your own call … not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth (1 Corinthians 1:26).

It’s disappointing that NPR and the LA Times wrote such smug articles.

One response to “Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the religious people. So what?

  1. Clarissa March 25, 2012 at 1:15 am

    I just took the quiz, and I got 100% of the answers correct, but I agree – it’s because of my test-taking skills as much as my knowledge. The question I was least confident in answering was the one about which religious figure is most associated with the Great Awakening. I have no idea. But I knew it wasn’t C) Billy Graham, and I’d never heard of the B) guy, and I knew Jonathan Edwards, besides writing that wonderful song in the 1960s http://youtu.be/HQe8Mk19_s4 was some old guy in Christian history. So I got it right, but it was luck.

    For the question on when does the Jewish sabbath start, I chose Friday, which seems like the only correct answer to me, since the big deal is that it starts at sundown on Friday.

    My test-taking skills helped me get the question about teaching the Bible as literature in school. I knew it wasn’t legal for a teacher for a public school teacher to lead a class in prayer, and I figured if they were asking a follow up question to that, the answer was probably the opposite, or they wouldn’t bother asking it.

    It’s hard to believe that that is considered an especially challenging test. The questions are pretty basic. I would quibble with one – I’ve heard for years that Buddhism isn’t a religion. The test says it is. I don’t know enough either way to have an opinion, but my test-taking skills lead me to guess it’s not.

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