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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Most American believers don't know what they're talking about

A story currently doing the rounds relates to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which asked 32 questions about religion to American respondents. Not surprisingly, atheists and agnostics did best - "not surprisingly," I say, because these are the people who are actually likely to have given religion some intellectual consideration.

I haven't seen all 32 questions, but the CNN version of the story gives some examples - "What religion was Mother Teresa?" "What religion was Maimonides?" "What religion is the Dalai Lama?" "What is the first book of the Bible?" "What are the first four books of the New Testament?" "Are American teachers able to use holy books in a comparative religion class?" "Are they allowed to lead a class in prayer?" The story also offers a quiz with 10 questions from the original 32 - with only minimal overlap with the ones I just mentioned. I got all 10 correct ... not because I am brilliant but because they are ridiculously elementary. In all, we have seen about half of the questions, and they are at such a rudimentary level as to be almost insulting to our intelligence.

Perhaps some of the questions we haven't seen are a bit harder, and maybe I would have got some wrong if I'd been asked all 32 of them. Who knows? But the evidence is that this was a very easy set of 32 questions that even someone with only basic general knowledge should have gotten almost completely right.

But, Catholics got only half the questions right. Mainline Protestants did even worse. White evangelical Protestants got over half right (it sounds like it wasn't much more than half) but did not do as well as Jews and Mormons who, in turn, did not do as well as atheists and agnostics. Black Protestants got just over a third right and Hispanic Catholics got just under a third right. Bible-belt Southerners fared badly, though we are not told exactly how badly.

In short, the ignorance of religion displayed by religious believers in America is appalling. Their reasons for believing in a particular set of religious propositions certainly cannot be based on a sound knowledge of what is on offer and deep reflection on the evidence. In America, at least, most believers simply don't know what they're talking about. I wonder whether it would be much better in other countries.

Forget the arguments about atheists rejecting the proposition that God exists, while being untutored in the more subtle kinds of academic theology. American believers accept extraordinary claims about the existence of a God, and much else, from a position of vastly more profound ignorance. That's the reality, folks.

Edit: Here's the full report - H/T Margaret Morgan. I've glanced through the full set of questions, and there was only one for which I was unsure of the answer (I get my American "great awakenings" mixed up). To be fair, even atheists and agnostics, who did best, only got about 20 or 21 out of 32 correct. Still, their decisions are, on average, grounded in a better knowledge base than that of any other group.

Further edit: I'm not usually one to brag, but I checked and my preferred answer to the question I was a little unsure about was correct - so I would have got all 32 right. But once again, that's because the questions were so easy. Even someone with only a superficial knowledge could have answered all 32 questions correctly ... but only 8 people out of over 3,400 managed to do so. Make of that what you will. This certainly puts a different perspective on claims that atheists somehow have no right to their position unless they have a sophisticated knowledge of theology.


Margaret said...

Here's the full report:


Neil said...

Nothing surprising here, given the strong inverse relation between education and religiosity.

Robert said...

Something worth noting in that report is that evangelical Christians actually scored high in knowledge about Christianity. They failed miserably on other religions, however, and their persecution complex shows up with their answers on religion and the courts.

Kirth Gersen said...

I was initially excited about the results, until I saw the small sample size. That, coupled with the fact that education correlated more strongly with correct answers than did religion (or lack thereof) -- and add to that effect the fact that atheists tend to be better-educated, on average -- well, the results may not imply that atheists think more about this stuff, but rather that most atheists and others who are better educated are more likely to know stuff about all kinds of different topics.

Russell Blackford said...

Atheists did best even after controlling for education and other factors such as gender, and a sample of 3400 is probably big enough to be scientifically accurate.

J.J. Emerson said...

Well, I "missed" the one about Nirvana. Apparently it is far more salient to Buddhism than to Hinduism, though as I understand it, both religions technically have concepts that are called "nirvana". It seems (to my not very religious Taiwanese wife) that nirvana isn't particularly emphasized in the Buddhism she's familiar with. But much of Taiwanese religion is a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, and local folk religions, so that's no surprise.

That's just a long excuse for getting only 31/32. :-P

Lisa said...

The details say that atheists and agnostics know more about world religions and religion issues in society but Evangelical Christians still know more about Christianity.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, the evangelical Protestants had a better knowledge of the Bible than any of the other groups, as you might expect. This is where they should excel.

Even so, the average evangelical Protestant did pretty poorly even on the rather superficial Bible questions. And they were hopeless when it came to knowledge of the alternatives on offer and of the other aspects surveyed.

Susannah Anderson said...

100% I'm an atheist. Previously, a reasonably educated Christian. Who actually read the Bible, which made me rather unusual. And which made me an atheist.

Re Robert (comment #3); "evangelical Christians ... scored high in knowledge about Christianity." Yes, but the questions were elementary; only the "Great Awakening" question required more than a minimal awareness. And they still averaged only about 50%!

Clark Goble said...

"Yeah, the evangelical Protestants had a better knowledge of the Bible than any of the other groups, as you might expect. This is where they should excel. "

Well technically the Mormons beat them, didn't they? 7.9 right to 7.3.

Russell Blackford said...

Whoops, you're right. I forgot about the Mormons when I wrote that. I guess I did so because they're not much on my radar, but it's still ... my bad (as they say).

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, I enabled moderation when I was away for a couple of weeks. Ive since decided that I like having it on. I check fairly frequently to approve genuine posts, but this way I don't have to expose everyone else to all the spam, rants, death threats and so on.

Kirth Gersen said...

Right you are Russell. Looking at the wrong set of numbers there for a moment. Thanks for the heads-up!