Blogs > Cliopatria > Why are Religious Americans More Ignorant of Religion than Atheists/Agnostics?

Mar 3, 2011 6:16 pm

Why are Religious Americans More Ignorant of Religion than Atheists/Agnostics?

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Food for Thought

The Pew Forum

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.

Jamelle Bouie

Let me speculate a bit. To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Ilya Somin

In some ways, ignorance about religion may be rational, just like the equally widespread political ignorance. For most voters, it is rational to be ignorant about politics because most people aren’t much interested in politics, political knowledge is rarely useful for everyday life, and the chance of any individual vote determining the outcome of an election is infinitesmal. Of course, individually rational decisions not to spend much time acquiring political knowledge may lead to bad collective outcomes, such as poor electoral decisions and terrible public policies.

In the case of religion, theological knowledge has little utility for everyday life, most people have only limited interest in religious doctrine, and any one individual’s ignorance about religion probably has very little effect on society. Thus, it’s possible that most people are ignorant about religion for much the same reason that they are ignorant about politics.

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More Comments:

Elizabeth Cregan - 10/5/2010

To many religious folks today are way too narrow minded. They forget that faith must be challenged in order to strengthen it and prefer to blindly follow rather than truly know

Mike R Bav - 10/4/2010

Without trying to offend anyone...

Maybe atheists choose to become atheists because they are informed and educated about life; whereas, religious people become religious b/c they SUBMIT to whatever they are told by their parents and preachers.

I acknowledge the prima facie irony that atheists are more informed about faith than their religious counterparts, but consider why a person would choose to become an atheist in the first place. If he is smart, then it is because he dispassionately analyzed a variety of opposing views and came to a certain conclusion. This would obviously require studying and scrutinizing a host of world religions.

Consider, on the other hand, why a religious person became religious. Not b/c he rigorously scrutinized every idea out there, but simply b/c his parents molded him to be pious from a young age.

I am not writing this to offend anyone, and I myself am Jewish, but my faith does not preclude from analyzing the facts before my eyes.

And, in this case, the facts indicate that atheists are far more informed about religion that those who actually practice it.

The question of 'Why'? is a good one, and the above was my attempt to answer it.

Shelley - 10/1/2010

Atheism is, more often than not, a choice.

Most atheists start off belonging to one religion or another. Over time, though, our religious beliefs are challenged. When challenged, we either abandoned our religion without a backward glance, or we sought to better understand religion--not only ours, but other religions, too.

When I started to question my faith, in my teens, I become intensely curious about religion. I once decided to go through the entire Encyclopedia Britannica and study every religion mentioned in the many volume set.

Well, I didn't finish, but my curiosity about religion, and my interest in history, combined to make me fairly comfortable about my understanding of Christianity (in its various forms), as well the other major religions covered in the Pew survey.

george shriver - 10/1/2010

How does one take the test ?

Doreen - 10/1/2010


Les Reed - 10/1/2010

Agnostics and atheists have likely been raised in a religion but have examined their religious beliefs and found them unsatisfactory. Most folks don't examine the version of reality with which they are presented, but merely accept it.

de Grene - 9/30/2010

Actually, my experience with believers being ignorant of religion, whether of others or of their own, has been overwhelmingly with Christians, and I am not surprised by it.

From the beginning of the Roman Church, the rule has been blind acceptance of whatever the Church says. To disagree or question or to investigate was declared blasphemy and heresy (you might recall hearing about the most famous of those incidents, called the Grand Inquisition)

Having been raised as a Christian, even of a more liberal denomination, I remember clearly being told by Sunday School teacher and ministers that we were not supposed to know certain things and to question The Word of God would make Him angry and we could be condemned to Hell for it. All we had to do was listen to the pastor (or minister, or preacher or priest) and he would tell us everything we needed to know -- he had a direct line to God and knew so much more than we did.

That truly inhibits people from looking into their religion to see what it really says. I have pointed out many inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible (I consider it a field of academic study now) only to have them completely ignorant that it exists. I have had to actually take out a Bible and show it to them before they will believe me. Even then, many of them try very hard to make up some reason why it is like that. (I once had a Christian tell me, in all seriousness, that "every mistake in the Bible is a typo.")

But even when it is studied by adherents, it is from the perspective of faith rather than critical examination. The fact that there are three completely different stories of Jesus's birth or that the Synoptic Gospels completely disagree with John concerning even the sequence of events of Jesus's life are passed over because they are not reading for that purpose; they are reading for inspiration and to deepen their belief. The actual accuracy of the document is inconsequential.

I don't want anyone to think that I beleive that Christians are the ONLY religious people who are ignorant of religion -- it exists i every religion, of course. My point is that, as far as I can tell, Christianity is the only religion that actually discourages close examination of the beliefs and documents that are considered most sacred. That in mind, how can we think that they would not be ignorant?