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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist"

"If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist," so says an article in the LA Times by Mitchell Landsberg. It is based on a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Landsberg asks the question:
So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.
This fits my experience as well. When I was a believer, I was aghast at the general ignorance among my fellow Christians on the Bible and Theology. Even in a fundamentalist Evangelical church, most Christians have never read the entire Bible, most could not give reasons for their faith (apart from perhaps some religious experience), and most did not know exactly what they were supposed to believe doctrinally.

If you want to take the quiz, it can be found here.


  1. I suppose I should point out that 20.9 out of 32 is a "D". Whether that is a passing grade may differ from class to class and institution to institution (it often would not be a passing grade if a class is taken as part of your major).

    And so I think this works better as an illustration of how widespread religious illiteracy is (especially but not only among the religious).

  2. James,

    You are correct. There is a great deal of biblical illiteracy among the entire population. Its always funny to me that on TV games shows, people can answer all kinds of trivial questions (especially about movies) but if even a general type of biblical question is asked, they all look around and the buzzer goes off.

  3. Tell me something I don't know! Ahh... badda bing! lol

    Ken, by the way I just posted an interview I did with Douglas Wilson. I thought you might be interested.

  4. Tristin,

    Thanks for the link. I had not heard of Douglas Wilson before. He obviously is a presuppositionalist and he is right that the new atheists don't really address the Transcendental Argument. I used to be a presuppositionalist as well. I have a couple of posts on the problems with it. See here and here.

  5. "Religion is beyond words, you fools..."


    For the first time you and I are in agreement on something.

    But my question would be, shouldn't we at least try? I mean, don't we have the right to try and grapple with religion and what it means to us as people--as a species?

    Food for thought.

  6. I actually managed to read most of the report before the Pew web site jammed. IIRC only 8 people out of the several thousand they surveyed got all 32 of the questions right (the online quiz contains only about half the questions). Almost all the questions should have been easy for any well educated American (I felt which of three figures [Billy Graham, Charles Finney, Jonathan Edwards] was associated with the first Great Awakening was the most obscure though most people found Maimonides' religion to be the most difficult).

  7. I just took it and got 100%. It must be due to my educa--I mean indoctrination at BJU.

    Did BJU have anything against Finney? I don't know much about him. Maybe that's just a coincidence. I don't remember even one reference to him in Vespers or anywhere else. LOL.

  8. It should be noted that this is a "religious knowledge" quiz, not a quiz particular to one religion, let alone Christianity. If one is unfamiliar with comparative religious studies, he will not score as highly as one who is.

  9. Just took the quiz. Though I scored 100%, a good deal of these questions had nothing to do with religion. What was Mother Teresa's religion? Supreme Court rulings? The Great Awakening? These have more to do with history and politics than religion. It would much more accurate if the study asked questions particular to various major world religious practices and beliefs. If the 15 question sample is any indicator, this is not a completely accurate study.

  10. I got 100%, but I used to be an atheist. I also think the question about Nirvana was technically wrong, but I knew which wrong answer they wanted.

    OTOH, I think the smug attitude of atheists about knowing lots of religious facts is just silly. At best, it's a morally ambiguous fact. I know from experience that drug addicts know far more about drug laws, scientific research, and social norms regarding drug usage than the average citizen. The same can be said of practically any subculture, whether it's of vice or virtue -- if you're doing something that is prone to expose you to social disapproval, you'll be highly motivated to make a rock-solid case for your viewpoint.

    I've spent a lot of time talking with homeless schizophrenics over the years, and they tend to know a lot more Biblical facts than the average Christian *or* atheist. Does that mean that their stance on religion is more legitimate than ours, or does it just mean that they are compulsively obsessed with convincing you their not crazy?

    The recent Harvard suicide Mitchell Heisman is a perfect example. I carefully read his 1904 page suicide-note over 3 days. At first, people were praising him for the immense list of facts about religion, economic, etc. that he compiled with "great erudition". On that basis, he was on stronger footing than the vast majority of people taking this survey (I'm sure he would've gotten 100%). But the paper is actually a trainwreck. It would fail any college course on any of the topics he covered, and is full of alarming holes. Judging a book by ability to regurgitate superficial facts is exactly counterproductive -- the people with the best grasp of superficial facts are often the craziest -- those who have something to prove.