photo by C4Chaos

Thanks to a new survey by the Pew Forum on Religious & Public Life, we can now claim that not only are intelligent people less likely to believe in god, but those unbelievers also know more about religion than religious people. As if American atheists needed even bigger egos (simmer down, people!).

Two reasons for this are stated in the article:

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.

Another is that religious followers are often so focused on their own beliefs that they do not research, think about, or fully understand other religions. This doesn’t go for everyone (obviously this study doesn’t prove that), but it would make sense that if someone believes their beliefs are right and perfect, that it wouldn’t matter as much what the “other people” believe.

One thing this study and the publicity of it might do is help believers realize that many atheists and agnostics are not like ignorant children who haven’t yet heard the “good news.” We’ve heard it, we’ve thought hard about it, and we’ve even believed it for a time, and yet we still reject it.

The amusing part of the article to me is that oftentimes people involved in a specific denomination of Christianity don’t even understand that denomination’s theology. Such as:

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.

I feel a little sorry for the ministers. Sometimes all you can do is sigh…

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24 thoughts on “Atheists Know More about Religion”

David Lerner · September 28, 2010 at 10:05 am

Oh, GG. How did you know that I wanted another way to feel superior? Thank you! (I can haz egotrip?)

    Godless Girl · September 28, 2010 at 10:31 am

    You may need to check your ego as extra baggage on your next flight, bro.

nullefide · September 28, 2010 at 10:30 am

Sadly, I don’t think this will change the minds of many religious people. They will still think that atheists obviously don’t REALLY understand their religion because if they REALLY understood they wouldn’t be atheists. Since religious people tend to not care what actual research says I doubt they will start with this survey.

But this survey still makes me smile. 🙂

    Godless Girl · September 28, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Alas, I do agree with you. I’ve been told multiple times before that true understanding only comes from the holy spirit, so of course atheists can’t have it since they don’t have the holy spirit.

      nullefide · September 28, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      Yep, I hear that plenty and it never fails to make me feel insulted.

Rhacodactylus · September 28, 2010 at 11:31 am

This is something I’ve been saying (without real evidence for it) for years. I’ve more than once been in the middle of a debate with a theist and pulled the “have you read the bible cover to cover” card, and what I usually get as a response is something like “well I’ve been going to church since I was five, I’m sure I’ve seen it all, but I’ve never sat down and read it end to end.

Atheists, take the time to read the thing cover to cover, it’s an awesome trump card.

Plus, nothing will reinforce your disbelief in Yahweh faster than reading that pablum cover to cover.


Ahab · September 28, 2010 at 12:13 pm

These results don’t susprise me, but they do disappoint me. It’s great that atheists and agnostics are knowledgeable about world religions, but what about other Americans? What does their religious illiteracy say about our readiness to live in a diverse country and an increasingly interconnected world?

    Godless Girl · September 28, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    At first blush I can think of a ton of evidence that closed-minded, uneducated, nationalistic emphases have already put America miles behind Europe and other countries. Such as: an unwillingness or apathy towards learning other languages; taking children out of school to educate them in the home so that they only receive their parents’ points of view, religious teachings, etc.; outright intolerance towards leaders who may not be heterosexual white anglo-saxon protestants… I could go on.

      Mike Brownstein · September 28, 2010 at 4:14 pm

      I’d like to see this same study done in another country that has a similar religiosity level as the US, and see what they know. Who knows, there could be a trend. Or that I’m just a crazy social science student.

        Godless Girl · September 28, 2010 at 4:31 pm

        Embrace the crazy! I think that’s a fine idea.

atfelix · September 28, 2010 at 8:33 pm

my favourite comment so far is at Holy Post of the National Post (in Canada):

The Roman Catholic Church’s most fundamental teaching is that the bread and wine used during communion are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. This belief is what separates Catholics from Protestants and is a core sacrament of the Catholic Church. Yet, 45% of Catholics believe the bread and wine are mere symbols. That lack of knowledge is akin to owning a car and not knowing what the steering wheel is for.

i think if you don’t know what a steering wheel does you might kill someone. if you don’t know about transubstantiation you’ll just piss your pants laughing when find out.

    Ahab · September 29, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Perhaps it’s because a lot of Catholic theology doesn’t trickle down to the laity?

      atfelix · September 29, 2010 at 11:03 pm

      perhaps, but before they take the host, priests say “body of christ” every time. i went to a catholic school at every level of education (from canada where catholic school is publicly funded). we had mandatory masses in elementary and high school and mandatory classes about doctrine (or at least wishy-washy jesus-loves-you crap) until grade 10 or so when it became comparative religion and philosophy classes. i still remember them talking about the exodus as if it actually happened.

      Godless Girl · September 30, 2010 at 8:53 am

      Perhaps I grew up in a rare community of very educated, theologically-minded, and passionately Catholic people. It seemed normal to me. All the kids went to the required CCD classes where they were taught doctrine of the church. The catechism was always available for reading, study, and teaching, the priests gave homilies about the eucharist and how important for salvation it was… In my experience, Catholic churches do more than a lot of other denominations to teach doctrine.

      Go figure, eh?

Jenny · September 29, 2010 at 12:48 am

That doesn’t surprise me. When I mentioned the problem of evil in my philosophy class, my classmates looked at me as if I were speaking gibberish. You’d think that you’d strive to understand your beliefs enough to withstand a little scrutiny from skeptics, but I guess that’s just me.

Bharath Reddy · September 29, 2010 at 1:55 am

if folks would read that Bible instead of just hitting other people over the head with it, they might know what it actually says.

Mansi · September 29, 2010 at 6:05 pm

See that’s the thing about religious zealots, or even the quieter religious believers — they simply follow. Organized religion doesn’t leave any scope for thinking — you read, you believe, you follow, you preach the same to your offsprings, and on we go. I agree with some commenters above that this will not change anyone’s minds. Atheists and agnostics can celebrate all they want. No one from the religious camps is crossing over to our side of the camp just because a study validated what we knew already.

Henway · September 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

You’re definitely right. Atheists for the most part have thought about religion more than religious followers, especially Christians. I find the eastern religions also are open to learning from Christianity, and using Christian principles to explain some of their philosophy (Oneness = Holy Spirit), and (God = presence), and (die in the cross = accepting the present moment)

Thatdude916 · October 21, 2010 at 1:43 pm

I was recently attacked/ambushed by my brother who up until a few years ago had no religious friends or convictions of any kind,and now suddenly I posted something to the tune of omissions and misinterpretations within the bible and he called the bible thumpers and one of them in particular stated some very hurtful/biggoted things regarding my wife and daughter. I tried to remain calm but found myself getting angrier and more frustrated that she continously dodged my questions while simultaneously asking more of hers. My brother who watched this take place wouldn’t even ask his friend to calm down and when i questioned him later he stated that he was simply “leveling the playing field”. My brother and I haven’t spoken since and i have no plans to speak to him any time soon.I am ranting here sorry for that but I just wanted to say i needed this today thanks for posting

    Godless Girl · October 21, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    I’m sorry you were so offended by that friend. It’s too bad your brother didn’t stick up for you, but I hope you can reconcile.

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