Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion

The L.A. Times reports:

a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term “blind faith.”

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.

Atheists and agnostics — those who believe there is no God or who aren’t sure — were more likely to answer the survey’s questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey’s measurement of religious knowledge — so close as to be statistically tied.

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.”

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

This matches my experience. I grew up attending a wonderful church, the Sudbury United Methodist Church. The pastors were wonderful. The congregation was wonderful. The annual retreats along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee were fabulous. It was a caring, supportive, loving community. And I loved Jesus' moral teachings, esp. the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (a philosophy I later learned predated Jesus… but I give him credit for emphasizing it).

I even enjoyed teaching Sunday School for several years while in high school and gave two sermons… well, one sermon that was so well received they asked me to give another, but my second sermon’s topic was the importance of non-conformity, and my parents insisted I wear a suit and tie rather than the sweater and tie I was wearing. I refused, and my parents refused to let me go, so I never gave that second sermon!

There was just one problem with my love of SUMC: I never believed in God or the mystical aspects of Christianity, like the idea Mary was a virgin, Jesus rose from the dead, Jesus was literally the son of God, etc.. That all struck me as nonsense. And I saw plenty of internal contradictions within the Bible, most significantly the angry, vengeful God of the Old Testament and the loving, accepting, forgiving God of the New Testament. But I loved the community and Jesus' moral teachings so much that I overlooked my dislike of the magical stuff, until my hand was forced. I attended 13 weeks of confirmation classes, intended to help us understand the religion better before we attended a confirmation ceremony when we confirmed our parents' decision to christen us as children.

The classes were great. The pastor who led them was a close friend and did a marvelous job. I had long attended weekly sessions (called a “covenant group”) with her and other teens that were mind-stretching experiences. So I wanted to believe in God. But, no matter what I read or heard, I just couldn’t find anything to convince me of the existence of God (or gods). There were too many reasons to disbelieve (all the evil in the world, the contradictions between various religions, the ability of science to explain much that had previously been attributed to gods, the inability of a “creator” to truly explain the origin of the universe… because you then must ask ‘Who created the creator?’, etc.).

I was urged to “take a leap of faith.” But that seemed ridiculous. I finally decided — to the great disappointment of my parents, grandmother, classmates, Scout Master, and others — that I just couldn’t go through with a confirmation because I just didn’t believe all the magical elements of Christianity.

Given my experience (and discussions I’ve had with tech friends who were raised in religious families but eventually abandoned their parents' faith), I find it quite plausible that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than religious believers.

Posted by James on Tuesday, September 28, 2010