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A Survey of Apples and Oranges
Ulfilas, gothic
gmcdavid

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, reporting on the Pew Forum U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey begins

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths.

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn't identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

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."

Terry Mattingly, in Brilliant doubters, dull believers? makes the same point, with rather more snark:

Well, the sexy lede out of this study is that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than, well, religious people. That is just accurate enough to be misleading. It’s also not all that surprising. I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy.

He goes on to raise a really good question:

According to the researchers, a person’s education was the single best predictor of how she or he would score. I do not doubt that. However, when I have a chance to dig further into this data, I will be looking for evidence of a pew gap in this Pew effort.

In other words, did anyone try to find out if the intensity of a person’s religious practice has anything to do with knowledge. In other words, do daily Mass Catholics know more about Catholicism and other religions than inactive Catholics? Do Jews who regularly attend worship services know more about, well, Maimonides than Jews who are completely secular? Do Evangelicals who take part in foreign missions projects know more about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., than people who say they are vaguely “Protestant” and that’s that?

Recall from above that

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....

The atheists and agnostics, as a group, are quite committed to their beliefs or lack thereof. All religions have some members with a comparable level of commitment, but the big ones also have a lot of others, e.g. Christians who only show up in church at Christmas and Easter. I suspect the results of such a survey would look quite different if you looked at only those believers who showed the same level of commitment as the atheists and agnostics. I doubt that many of Mattingly's "daily Mass Catholics" think "that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them."


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