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On Tuesday, Pew released its bombshell survey showing that Americans have a shaky grasp of religious knowledge, with atheists outscoring Christians--including on questions about Christianity. Jews and Mormons also scored highly on the test. The Wire brought you the first round of debate yesterday. Today the discussion has moved onto deeper discussions about why atheists appear to know a lot about religion, why American Christians might not, and whether all this actually matters.

  • Motivation for Minorities to Be Informed Jamelle Bouie comes up with an interesting analogy at The American Prospect. "As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks--and especially those with middle-class lives--tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn't succeed otherwise." But whites don't necessarily need to know about non-white culture. "Put another way," concludes Bouie, "there's a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else."

  • Atheism as a Religion of Converts E. D. Kain at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen adds to Bouie's argument, which he thinks "leaves out one important factor: choice." As "many atheists and agnostics were not born into atheist/agnostic families," they are, "in essence ... converts," who made a "conscious choice" to leave their childhood faith. "Converts often actively set out to learn about a religious tradition, and usually more than one." He also points out that Mormons, who scored nearly as highly as atheists on the survey, also include a high number of converts. The success of Jews is a bit harder to explain, he admits.
I think the takeaway from this poll is that more religious groups should do a better job at educating their members about other faiths and cultures. I don't think this would lead to more atheism, but even if it did--even if learning more about the gory underbelly of many of the world's religious traditions did turn more people off--at least it would make peoples' beliefs in general more substantive and meaningful.
  • The Naivete of Majorities "I would add," writes Think Progress's Matthew Yglesias, "that members of culturally dominant groups can often manifest a certain blindness about what's happening inside their own cultures." His example: American Christians' lack of awareness "of the religious significance of the US Postal Service delivery schedule or how convenient it is for 'everyone' that extra time off is located in late December."
  • Atheists Are Unsurprised by These Findings The Wire covered this sort of response yesterday, but P. Z. Myers at Scienceblogs chimes in on this theme with a slightly different twist: "we've been aware of this for many years, and one of the things we've routinely experienced is the fact that in arguments, we almost always know more about our opponent's religion than he or she does."
  • Nobody Should Be Surprised The American Conservative's Daniel Larison comes to the same point from a slightly different angle: "many of the people who think 'religion is a con' are surprisingly obsessed with the subject, and some of them spend an inordinate amount of time railing against it. It seems reasonable that they would pick up at least some superficial knowledge of the details, if only as a means for making fun of religious beliefs in great detail." Larison also isn't convinced that Christians' ignorance of the foundations of Christianity is all that important: "How central to modern Protestant religious practice is knowledge about the early Reformers?" As someone with a "secular background" who later turned to Christianity, he adds: "Viewed one way, I was extremely well-informed about world religions by the time I was 20. As I look at it now, I was still stunningly ignorant of the most important Truth of all." One final point:
The farther afield into world religions one goes, the more one is going to find that Americans are no more knowledgeable about the religions of the rest of the world than they are about anything else in the rest of the world. A nation that cannot locate Iraq on a map is not a nation that is going to know the religious demographics of Asian countries about which they know even less than Iraq.
  • Atheists Need to Be Informed: They Are Constantly Getting into Arguments (Sort of Like Republicans) Matthew Nisbet at Big Think expands upon the notion of argumentative atheists. He thinks the natural motivation of minorities to gain knowledge about majority culture "is amplified when these minority individuals also anticipate engaging in conversations or arguments with others--where as a small minority--they often have to defend their own beliefs." In this, he compares atheist religious familiarity to "self-identifying Republicans'" ("today a small minority in American politics") higher scores than Democrats on "public affairs knowledge." He also compares Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great to Ann Coulter's How to Talk to a Liberal If You Must, portraying both as field guides for anticipated debates.
  • Is Religious Ignorance Rational? Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy comes at the poll from a different angle. Political ignorance makes sense, says Somin: informing oneself is a big time investment and doesn't often pay off in day-to-day life. But most people who are religious believe that they are going to die and that faith is a mitigating factor. Believers, in other words, are saved, and there's a strong motive for getting belief "right." Here's the problem, explains Somin:
Many great religious leaders (e.g.--Luther and Calvin) argued that your soul can only be saved if you embrace the one true faith. ... You need knowledge to know which theological doctrines are the ones you have to have faith in. Should you have faith in Christ, Vishnu, or the doctrines of the Koran? It's hard to make an informed choice unless you have at least basic knowledge of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

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