It has been a torrid few years for thinking atheists and agnostics, having to be associated with the stridently confident, loud, and – quite frankly – downright embarrassing group known as the New Atheists. There is hardly a week goes by without a New Atheist either (1) espousing some ill-thought-out philosophical argument that would make even a first-year philosophy student explode with mocking, albeit slightly geeky, laughter; (2) voicing some political or ethical opinion that would receive a unanimous round of appreciative grunting at a Tea Party gathering; or (3) following some wacky Jesus-myth conspiracy theory involving inevitably facile comparisons to Mithra, Zoroaster, or Greco-Roman myth, and which has as much probability as the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama is really a cactus.
But now, some good news for the embattled unbeliever: a recent survey finds that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than their confessing counterparts. According to the latest Pew Forum poll, the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey (released September 28, 2010), Atheists/Agnostics comprise the group that knows the most about religion. The unbelievers (averaging 20.9 questions correctly answered out of 32: 65.3%) narrowly beat out Jews (20.5: 64.1%) and Mormons (20.3: 63.4%). Protestant Christians are a long way back on 16 (50%, a bare pass), and Catholic Christians further back on 14.7 (45.9%, FAIL). And it’s not as though U.S. Christians are any better on their own religion: the atheists/agnostics even know more about the topic of Christianity than do Christians. What’s more, atheists and agnostics might not believe religion, but they sure do care about it:
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.”
– L.A. Times, September 28, 2010
It is the turn of the believers to be embarrassed, as a few amusing (and at the same time disturbing) examples show. Nearly half of all Catholics (45%) are, and I presume unpleasantly, surprised that their religion teaches transubstantiation (the belief that the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist). More than half of all Protestants don’t know that Martin Luther started their particular offshoot of Christianity. Less than half of all Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and about a quarter (27%) know that the world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, mostly contains … Muslims. (We can only pray, or merely hope, that Indonesia doesn’t discover vast untapped reservoirs of oil – lest the other three-quarters of Americans rapidly discover their dominant religious affiliation.)
The Pew Forum attributes much of the success of atheists and Jews to higher educational levels, which of course reflects a higher economic status. But even at a comparable level of education, the survey found that atheists and agnostics still knew more than their religious counterparts.