Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pew Survey: Religious Illiteracy or Willful Ignorance?

A new survey recently administered by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life proves what all of us already knew: Americans know frightfully little about religion. As the Times reports, the survey tests respondents' knowledge of a variety of religion-related topics, from the Bible to Christianity to world religions to the relationship between church and state in America. The average score is a dismal 50%.

I didn't take the poll, but the questions I've seen seem pretty easy. Of course, I have a Ph.D. in Religious Studies, so I'm contractually obligated to think the survey is beneath me. But you can see for yourself: here's a link to some sample questions.

Progressive news outlets like MSNBC and the Huffington Post have been trumpeting the fact that atheists and agnostics score best on the quiz. (Though even these groups shouldn't be too proud: they average only slightly better than 60%.)

The Times quotes Dave Silverman, president of the advocacy group American Atheists, on non-believers' above-average performance: "'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'.” Translation? Believers are dumb. They don't even read their own texts. If they did, they'd be atheists too.

But this explanation--repeatedly raised by Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O'Donnell last evening--is facile and, frankly, uninformed. I would wager that most Christian believers know their own scriptures very well; most of my religious friends do.

But I wonder if there isn't a more nefarious reason for believers' relative ignorance. Perhaps they score poorly on a survey testing broad-based religious knowledge because some of them want to remain in the dark.

As I mentioned earlier this month, the would-be Qur'an-burner Terry Jones claims to have never read Islam's holy book. And one of the scariest banners floating around the protests against the Park51 community center in Lower Manhattan reads, "I learned everything I need to know about Islam on 9/11." Maybe some believers fare poorly on the Pew test not because they are stupid, but because they choose to remain ignorant of other traditions.

This theory holds water for me, because despite atheists' claims to superiority, they are not substantially smarter than their religious neighbors. But non-believers may have an edge because they allow themselves to be exposed to other faiths.

Frankly, though, I hope I'm wrong.


  1. So, from your position as an informed theist, why do you reject Vishnu? Or Ahura Mazda? Or Zeus or Odin?

    Every atheist could give you the same (correct) answer to that question.


  2. What an odd non sequitur.

    I've actually never come out as an "informed theist"--either in this space or elsewhere. Nor have I ever "rejected" Vishnu. I only argue that all sorts of people--believers and non-believers--should be better informed about the Bible, the only scripture I profess to know much about.

    But you've made a very nice list of other god names. Well done.


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