Why Do Atheists Know More About Religion?

A Pew poll shows that non-believers have a decent grasp of dogma

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A new Pew survey is pretty much guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of the faithful. In a survey of religious knowledge, Americans did fairly poorly, displaying little knowledge of world religions. More provocatively, Americans did not even know much about their own religions. A shocking forty-five percent of Catholics incorrectly answered a question about Catholicism and Communion, for example. To make matters worse, it seems that those who scored highest on this survey were, in fact, atheists and agnostics. The next-highest scoring groups were Jews and Mormons.

  • 'Well This Is Awkward,' observes Truthdig's Ear to the Ground blog, noting that "Mormons and Jews also scored well, and, like Atheists, know more about Christianity than Christians."

  • Atheist Effect Holds True When You Control for Other Factors, Too  "Atheists and agnostics score particularly well on knowing something about world religions," notes Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution, although he also points to their high scores with knowledge of Christianity. "The effect remains even after controlling for education," he adds.
  • The Lesson?  "People believe in what they believe for social reasons and not because they actually know anything about what they believe," concludes blogger Half Sigma. "And the same applies to belief in global warming."
  • Atheists Are Unsurprised, reports The New York Times' Laurie Goodstein, who quotes the president of American Atheists: 
"I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," Mr. Silverman said. "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."
  • 'Religion Congruence Fallacy'  That's what "academics call it," writes Jeffrey Weiss at Politics Daily, referring to the phenomenon of "Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend[ing] not to act like it," whether through premarital sex or divorce or what-have-you. He points out that, until this survey, there had been little evidence to support scholar Stephen Prothero's claim that "Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion." Weiss is skeptical, though, about some of the questions (on which Prothero, apparently, was consulted), which, he says " read to me as if they were taken from a religion version of Trivial Pursuit." That said, he's fascinated by the fact that Jews, Mormons, and the "religiously unaffiliated" do so well, and is particularly struck by the responses to two questions:
Maybe it's just that I've been writing about religion so long that makes me shocked that four in 10 Catholics polled said their church teaches the consecrated bread and wine at Mass is only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. (That the host and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ is central to Catholic teaching. The big word is "transubstantiation." ) ... Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born? (71 percent--but only 65 percent of Catholics--knew it's Bethlehem. Is it really possible that there's a place where 30 percent of America isn't forced to listen to piped-in Christmas carols? "O Little Town of . . .")
  • This Is Why We Need Bible Education, concludes the aforementioned Stephen Prothero, writing at CNN. "The big story here," he predicts, "will likely be that those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity." But regardless of what you think of religion, he continues:
How to hold politicians who pin their public policies to the Bible without knowing something about that text?  And how to make sense of religious conflict in the Middle East without knowing something about Judaism, Christianity and Islam? ... It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world's religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.
  • Christians Not the Only Ones Mistaken About Their Religion  Though a surprising forty-five percent Catholics may not understand the Catholicism doctrine of transubstantiation, The New York Times' Laurie Goodstein points out that, in addition, "forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish."
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