Periodically I get e-mails regarding a statistic that has recently come out regarding Christianity. I appreciate these e-mails, and I got a bunch this week regarding a study recently released by Pew. In this study, Pew administered a 32 question test about different world religions to 3,400 Americans, and when the results were tallied, it turns out that Atheists, Jews, and Mormons scored the highest. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics the lowest, White Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mainline Protestants in the middle. Here's the table from Pew:
In response, some Atheists have crowed about their knowledge, implying this survey supports the wisdom of their position. From the New York Times, the president of the American Atheists said: “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people.... Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
My thoughts about this study? Well, first of all Pew is a very reputable source of information about religion in America, and I frequently use their data in my own research. They have solid methods and present the material with a minimum of sensationalism.
For me, the more interesting data comes in the reports next table, presented here:
When broken down by type of question, it turns out that atheists and agnostics know more about other religions, but some types of Christians know more about Christianity. Evangelicals, for example, score higher (though I'm not sure about the statistical significance of this difference). In fact, for me the big surprise of the report was that Evangelicals scored higher than mainline Protestants (though I'm not sure why I would have expected otherwise). This goes against the argument that atheists/agnostics reject Christianity because they have learned so much about it. As such, it might be more accurate to say that they know more about "religions" than "religion" per se.
I make this distinction because this test asks basic historical, biographical, and theological questions about religion. However, for many people, including myself, my interest in Christianity isn't one of detached fact-collecting, rather it's the practice of it. So, knowing about Jonathan Edwards, a cool 18th century Christian theologian, may be interesting, but it's not that important for me to know as a Christian.
I certainly don't fault Pew for this test... it's interesting for what it is. To illustrate what it doesn't do, imagine a test that describes various life situations and asks what a Christian should do (e.g., love your enemy, serve the poor, have faith in God, etc...). This type of test would get at the essence of Christianity in a way that factoids do not.