Do atheists know more about religion than the religious?

pewforum1Early this morning, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released its survey on religious knowledge in the United States, and the results are sure to draw attention.

Here’s why:

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for different levels of education.

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On questions about Christianity (including the Bible), Mormons and white evangelical Protestants show the highest levels of knowledge.

Expect to see plenty of “Atheists Know More About Religion Than Christians” style headlines, and while that may irk, it is in one sense true. In a country as heavily religious as the United States, the atheist must make a conscious choice to go a different route, and that requires some knowledge of what he’s rejecting. That’s not the case for the mainline Christian who finds his nominal and ill-informed faith fits easily with the nominal and ill-informed Christianity of American culture.

Unfortunately, ignorance of one’s own tradition is particularly strong among Catholics: 

More than four-in-ten Catholics (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize, but actually become, the body and blood of Christ.

Click here for the complete survey.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

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