There’s a meme about debating atheists that suggests they know the Bible better than Christians do that makes the rounds every so often on the Internet. There’s a little bit of truth in that meme. Ask any atheist and chances are they’ve had more than one discussion where it was clear the person they were talking to didn’t know much about their own religion or its history or, for that matter, other religions. It’s a never-ending source of amusement for many of us atheists.
Every now and then the folks at the Pew Research Center will conduct a poll on religious knowledge and the results always back up the idea that most American’s religious knowledge is pretty piss-poor. They just did another one consisting of 32 questions to 3,412 adults across the nation. The results of the poll do not paint Christians is a great light:
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.
It turns out that on questions specifically about the Bible and Christianity, White Evangelicals and Mormons do slightly better than atheists/agnostics (7.3 and 7.9 versus 6.7 correct answers out of 12, respectively), but once you start asking about history or other religions you find the atheists/agnostics second only to the Jews (7.5 to 7.9 out of 11). When you ask questions on religion in public life us non-believers come out on top (2.8 out of 4 with Jews second at 2.7).
If you’re curious, you can take a mini-quiz with 15 of the questions that the subjects were asked by clicking here.
As you can see above, I took the quiz and I managed to answer 14 of the 15 questions correctly for a score of 93%. That’s better than 97% of the public. I messed up on a question about the Jewish Sabbath that I probably should have gotten right had a taken a moment longer to think about it. If you want to take the quiz you should probably do so before reading any further because this next bit will spoil some of the questions.
What’s really amazing about this survey is how many believers are ignorant about major aspects of their own religion. For example:
More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.
How can you claim to be Catholic and not know about transubstantiation? They fucking drill that into you in most Catholic churches like it was the secret to the universe. I’m not as surprised about most protestants not knowing who the fuck Martin Luther is because that’s church history and most Christians don’t bother learning the history of their religion. I am surprised that so many Jews don’t know that Maimonides was Jewish.
When you start asking Americans about religions other than Christianity and Judaism, it gets much, much worse:
In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia – the country with the world’s largest Muslim population – are Muslims.
Then there’s the issue of religion in public schools were most folks (89%) managed to answer correctly that a teacher cannot lead a class in prayer, but…
…among the questions most often answered incorrectly is whether public school teachers are permitted to read from the Bible as an example of literature. Fully two-thirds of people surveyed (67%) also say “no” to this question, even though the Supreme Court has clearly stated that the Bible may be taught for its “literary and historic” qualities, as long as it is part of a secular curriculum.2 On a third question along these lines, just 36% of the public knows that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools. Together, this block of questions suggests that many Americans think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are tighter than they really are.
There’s a lot of folks who seem to think kids aren’t allowed to pray in school (that wasn’t a survey question). For the record, your kids can pray in school all they want so long as it’s something they decide to do themselves and they’re not disrupting class to do it.
Anyway, the whole report is worth a read and you should check it out. It should be somewhat embarrassing for believers that atheists/agnostics know as much — if not more — about not only the Christian religion, but other religions and their histories. It displays a profound lack of interest in one of the things many profess is the most important thing in their lives. It also leads to awkward conversations when you try to convert one of us to your particular belief system.