Non­be­liev­ers know their stuff

Athe­ists and ag­nos­tics are bet­ter in­formed about faiths than most faith­ful, a re­port finds.

Los Angeles Times - - Latextra - Mitchell Lands­berg mitchell.lands­berg @latimes.com

A sur­vey finds that ag­nos­tics and athe­ists, on av­er­age, tend to be more knowl­edge­able about re­li­gion than most.

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

Heresy? Per­haps. But a sur­vey that mea­sured Amer­i­cans’ knowl­edge of re­li­gion found that athe­ists and ag­nos­tics knew more, on av­er­age, than fol­low­ers of most ma­jor faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowl­edge among some of the faith­ful may give new mean­ing to the term “blind faith.”

A ma­jor­ity of Protes­tants, for in­stance, couldn’t iden­tify Martin Luther as the driv­ing force be­hind the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, re­leased Tues­day by the Pew Fo­rum on Re­li­gion & Pub­lic Life. Four in 10 Catholics mis­un­der­stood the mean­ing of their church’s cen­tral rit­ual, in­cor­rectly say­ing that the bread and wine used in Holy Com­mu­nion are in­tended to merely sym­bol­ize the body and blood of Christ, not ac­tu­ally be­come them.

Athe­ists and ag­nos­tics — those who be­lieve there is no God or who aren’t sure — were more likely to an­swer the sur­vey’s ques­tions cor­rectly. Jews and Mor­mons ranked just be­low them in the sur­vey’s mea­sure­ment of re­li­gious knowl­edge — so close as to be sta­tis­ti­cally tied.

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.

The groups at the top of the U.S. Re­li­gious Knowl­edge Sur­vey were fol­lowed, in or­der, by white evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants, white Catholics, white main­line Protes­tants, peo­ple who were un­af­fil­i­ated with any faith (but not athe­ist or ag­nos­tic), black Protes­tants and Latino Catholics.

Mus­lims, Hin­dus and Bud­dhists were in­cluded in the sur­vey, but their num­bers were too small to be bro­ken out as sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant groups.

Stephen Prothero, a pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion at Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity and author of “Re­li­gious Lit­er­acy: What Ev­ery Amer­i­can Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” served as an ad­vi­sor on the sur­vey. “I think in gen­eral the sur­vey con­firms what I ar­gued in the book, which is that we know al­most noth­ing about our own re­li­gions and even less about the re­li­gions of other peo­ple,” he said.

He said he found it sig­nif­i­cant that Mor­mons, who are not con­sid­ered Chris­tians by many fun­da­men­tal­ists, showed greater knowl­edge of the Bi­ble than evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians.

The Rev. Adam Hamil­ton, a Methodist min­is­ter from Lea­wood, Kan., and the author of “When Chris­tians Get It Wrong,” said the sur­vey’s re­sults may re­flect a re­luc­tance by many peo­ple to dig deeply into their own be­liefs and es­pe­cially into those of oth­ers.

“I think that what hap­pens for many Chris­tians is, they ac­cept their par­tic­u­lar faith, they ac­cept it to be true and they stop ex­am­in­ing it. Con­se­quently, be­cause it’s al­ready ac­cepted to be true, they don’t ex­am­ine other peo­ple’s faiths. … That, I think, is not healthy for a per­son of any faith,” he said.

The Pew sur­vey was not with­out its bright spots for the de­vout. Eight in 10 peo­ple knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic. Seven in 10 knew that, ac­cord­ing to the Bi­ble, Moses led the ex­o­dus from Egypt and that Je­sus was born in Beth­le­hem.

The ques­tion that elicited the most cor­rect re­sponses concerned whether pub­lic school teach­ers are al­lowed to lead their classes in prayer. Eighty-nine per­cent of the re­spon­dents cor­rectly said no. How­ever, 67% also said that such teach­ers are not per­mit­ted to read from the Bi­ble as an ex­am­ple of lit­er­a­ture, some­thing the law clearly al­lows.

For com­par­i­son pur­poses, the sur­vey also asked some ques­tions about gen­eral knowl­edge, which yielded the scari­est find­ing: 4% of Amer­i­cans be­lieve that Stephen King, not Her­man Melville, wrote “Moby Dick.”

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