No Religion, Know Religion

by on September 28, 2010 at 7:10 am in Education, Religion | Permalink

From a recent Pew Survey on U.S. Religious Knowledge, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most religionists.  Atheists and agnostics score particularly well on knowing something about world religions but also do better than most on Christianity.  The effect remains even after controlling for education.

Take a short version of the quiz here. Graphic from the NYTimes.

Addendum: The Atlantic has a good run down on commentary. I was especially amused by religion scholar Stephen Prothero's line "those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity."

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1 Andrew September 28, 2010 at 7:37 am

Where are the questions?

2 Robert September 28, 2010 at 7:58 am
3 Dan September 28, 2010 at 9:07 am

I think Robert has a good point. In America, Atheism/Agnosticism tends a position of commitment, not a default position for those who are nonreligious. The default answer for people who are largely uninterested in religion is more likely to be some form of Christianity than atheist.

Thus, the group of all people who self-identify as Christians is not a good sample of Christian “religionists”, assuming that term implies some level of commitment to and participation in Christian religion.

The survey showed that those with religious commitment, unsurprisingly, knew more:
“Other factors linked with religious knowledge include reading Scripture at least once a week and talking about religion with friends and family. People who say they frequently talk about religion with friends and family get an average of roughly two more questions right than those who say they rarely or never discuss religion. People with the highest levels of religious commitment – those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives – generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment.”

4 M Wms September 28, 2010 at 9:36 am

Most surprising result to me was one of the control questions: Only 59% of Americans can name the vice president of the United States.

5 Chris September 28, 2010 at 9:37 am

This seems very misleading. Included are questions about multiple religions, and others that are not about religions at all, but rather religious history (a totally different subject in the same way science and history of science are different subjects). That is, they reflect a person’s general education more so than knowledge of the religion to which they adhere.

6 Andrew September 28, 2010 at 9:44 am

Thanks. Also, it seems the best predictor is level of education, which is also a predictor of Atheism. So, much of what the survey is testing is what is already known.

I wondered about the questions (and they do seem odd) because a lot of “theology as signaling you are versed in literature” is of little interest to practicing worshipers, so the type of questions asked is going to be important.

It’s a bit of what I call the (NPR) “All Things Considered” effect. Try as I might, I can’t figure out why I should care about 95% of what they consider. They never offer conclusions, just considerations. Like I’m going to ponder unemployed transvestites in New York all week. Oh wait, that’s This American Life. Anyway, if I didn’t spend all my time trying to signal cleverness, it might be 99%, and the last 1% might only be for reinforcing my view that the rest of the world is a bunch of heathens.

7 Bob September 28, 2010 at 10:54 am

Sorry for the non-sequitur, but it is considered poor form to “leach” images from other websites. Every time this image is viewed on MR it uses NYT bandwidth. Please re-host it before I loose my faith.

8 B.B. September 28, 2010 at 11:04 am

Another round of distinction is necessary.

Consider those raised religious. Suppose they think about their faith and develop doubts. Many will investigate the beliefs of their faith, study closely, and then reject the faith, becoming atheists or agnostics. Such people are certain to rate high on religious knowledge, probably higher than those who complacently accept their native faith without investigation.

But what of those raised by atheist or agnostic parents? Do they challenge their faith? Many of them, I suspect, have no religious interests and do not educate themselves about any religion, except perhaps to laugh at Bill Maher ridicule.

The former group would like do well on the test. The latter would do poorly.

9 Charles September 28, 2010 at 11:29 am

AC, the chart showing that believers have higher IQs than non-believers on the webpage you linked to relates to atheists and believers who reported attending religious services. Overall, atheists had higher IQs then firm believers (see the asterisk note at the bottom).

Interestingly, the data used on the webpage you linked to indicates that agnostics and uncertain believers have higher IQs than atheists and firm believers.

10 Edward Burke September 28, 2010 at 12:01 pm

“The history of religions and religious ethnology are of a much more urgent usefulness in the politics of today than are economics or sociology.” –Mircea Eliade, No Souvenirs, 1978.
Prophecy or prescience? Exaggeration or understatement?
This Pew poll begins to point also to the formidable gap between “religious knowledge” and “religious experience”. On another hand it does not make clear the academic reductionism or marginalization that has been afflicting religious studies programs at the post-secondary level since Eliade’s day; where religious studies programs persist, they now are commonly paired with “ethics” or (if deemed a bit more respectable) “philosophy”; whereas the purport of any self-respecting religion resides dominantly in the realm of ontology, to borrow a term from “philosophy” (itself formerly “the handmaiden to theology”, now chiefly “the whore of science”).

11 Taimyoboi September 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm

The most telling of the demographic data is the percent correct based on weekly attendance. Individuals who attend service at least weekly outperformed those who seldomly or never attend service. Presumably never attends captures atheists and agnostics, and not just lapsed religious.

12 sash September 28, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Well as a jewish Atheist, I don’t know which category i belong in.

13 Sam Penrose September 28, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I think there is a fascinating relationship between faith and theology: many believers seem to hunger for churches which provide theology, without actually adopting it themselves. Consider the novels of Dan Brown: long expositions of absurdly specific theology read avidly by people who keep their own beliefs as vague as possible.

14 jj September 28, 2010 at 2:53 pm

So, Mormons know more about Moses than Jews and more about Martin Luther than protestants?

15 Steve Sailer September 28, 2010 at 7:17 pm

How radically different would the rank order turn out — atheists and Jews at the top, black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics at the bottom — if the test were instead about current events or geography or English literature or math or anything else?

16 doctorpat September 28, 2010 at 10:48 pm

I took the on-line 15 question quiz, and got 14/15 including the 4 questions that were about american politics and history rather than religion.

In my opinion, if you get less than 75% on that test, particularly if you are an American, you should just kill yourself.

Oh wait! Look at the next article…

17 Ed September 28, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Don’t want to boast, but I got 15 out of 15 on the short quiz. And it was a bad quiz. Too many trick questions.

I’ve been surprised at how many Catholics I know who don’t understand transubstantiation, but I think some religions play down their odder tenets at the parish priest level. The Presbyterians seem to do this with predestination.

18 DK September 28, 2010 at 11:37 pm

The quiz is a joke. It has nothing to do with religious knowledge. It tests most basic cultural knowledge associated with various religions. Big difference. Seriously, why would devout Catholic need to know anything about false religion of Buddhism?

I got 14/15 (never heard of the First Great Awakening) and I imagine most everyone with an advanced degree would score similarly.

19 Matt September 29, 2010 at 4:19 am

Did you check the comparison of scores with religious service attendance? Serious religious adherents (those who attend religious services every week) scored better than everyone. The “nevers” scored better than the monthly/yearly group.

20 MikeP September 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm

Yes, 15/15.

The only hard one — the First Great Awakening question — came from dim recesses of my mind filled in high school American literature and history classes, not Sunday school classes.

21 ditdatdude October 2, 2010 at 1:27 am

I think that it IS relevant that controlling for educational level religious people fail to know as much as atheists, However, I think it is also relevant and MUCH MORE INTERESTING to know that even a well educated atheist is much more likely to believe in big foot than a religious person with a high school education who has never heard of Martin Luther but who attends sunday school in a fundamentalist denomination.

The problem with this survey is that the markers of knowledge it uses to indicate religious knowledge don’t function well for that purpose. The Survey authors seem to think a protestant religious person should know who Martin Luther is, but few religious protestants seem to agree. Markers such as whether one should fear haunted places or consult a horoscope are far more interesting statistically. A recent survey by Baylor University, is described in the book: What America Really Believes by Rodney Stark. It has demographics like gender, education as well as religious and political affiliation. This survey indicates that those who attended church more than once a week are far less likely to believe in Big Foot or that communication with the dead is possible, for example, than are people with advanced degrees. This counter intuitive result was duplicated by another survey by The Skeptical Inquirer. The book is available on Amazon and is searchable. If you search “credulity” you can find these and other very interesting results relevant to the issue of “ignorance” of religious people.

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