Friday, October 01, 2010

Is it true? Atheists know more about religion than Christians

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.


Drek said...

"When broken down by type of question, it turns out that atheists and agnostics know more about other religions, but Christians know more about Christianity."

Not so fast, Brad. If you look closely at that table, you'll note that the mean for knowledge of the bible and Christianity among all Christians is 6.2, whereas atheists score a mean of 6.7. In fact, of the Christian denominations the only ones that score higher than atheists in this area are white Evangelicals and Mormons. For that matter, those are the only groups at all that score higher than atheists. So, unless you're suggesting that only white Evangelicals and Mormons count as Christian (and I know you're not), it isn't really accurate to say that "Christians know more about Christianity."

I'm willing to agree that there may not be a statistical difference between what atheists know about Christianity and what most Christians know about Christianity, but that still doesn't support your point.

Brad Wright said...

Good catch, Drek. I corrected the language. Thanks....

Tim said...

While white evangelicals have a higher score related to "Bible and Christianity" it still seems like there's room for improvement. I'd love to see an increase in bible literacy among my own folk. More importantly, I wish we evangelicals could know more about our neighbors: Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. Interfaith dialog seems to scare us, but I'd love more opportunities to learn from one another as long as we don't sacrifice our distinctiveness (I'm not arguing for universalism or syncretism). It might be nice for us to know at least as much about world religions as the atheist.

Mark said...

Where can I find the exact questions that were asked?

Claiming that some group "knows more" than another group depends entirely on the questions asked.

show me the questions!!

Brad Wright said...

There's a 15 question quiz based on the survey, I think, at the site.

Andy Rowell said...


Yes, the questions are there at the site.

Brad has given you the link to the:
Executive Summary

Then to the right, click on:
Survey questionnaire (300 KB PDF)

Brad, maybe you should change the settings on your comments in Blogger so one can see the dates when people commented. Currently it just shows the time (which is the (rather unhelpful) default setting).

Go to Dashboard . . . Settings . . . Comments . . . Comments Timestamp Format

Edwardtbabinski said...

Brad wrote: "Imagine a test that describes various life situations and asks what a Christian should do."

Have you seen Marc Hauser's "Moral Sense Test?"

The data is also examined in his book Moral Minds.

The test has been taken by quite a few people and the results demonstrate that nearly everybody, regardless of religious beliefs, agree on which questions gave them the most difficulty, and on how they would most likely react given certain hypothetical situations.

To what extent do moral judgments depend on conscious reasoning from explicitly understood principles? We address this question by investigating one particular moral principle, the principle of the double effect. Using web-based technology, we collected a large data set on individuals’ responses to a series of moral dilemmas, asking when harm to innocent others is permissible. Each moral dilemma presented a choice between action and inaction, both resulting in lives saved and lives lost. Results showed that: [1]patterns of moral judgments were consistent with the principle of double effect and showed little variation across differences in gender, age, educational level, ethnicity, religion or national affiliation [within the limited range of our sample population] and [2] a majority of subjects failed to provide justifications that could account for their judgments. These results indicate that the principle of the double effect may be operative in our moral judgments but not open to conscious introspection. We discuss these results in light of current psychological theories of moral cognition, emphasizing the need to consider the unconscious appraisal system that mentally represents the causal and intentional properties of human action.

Kyndria said...

I find that most people who were raised Catholic because of ethnic influence (Italian, Irish, etc.) know less about Christianity than many Evangelical Protestants. (They also rarely understand the difference between Catholic and Protestant.) But people who convert to Catholicism from being Protestant or agnostic, understand Catholic dogma and Christian principles much better. I also find that many people who are Protestant from social influence, eg. in the Bible Belt, tend to know less about Christianity and Biblical principles, than those who made a conscious decision or conversion. I have also run across several agnostics who come from Christian families. Sadly many whose parent(s) were in the ministry somehow. Their knowledge of the Bible and church dogma would fall into the 10th percentile or higher of the general populace. Yet they have decided to abandon their faith by following a logical process, rather than an emotional one.