A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep

The United States of America is populated overwhelmingly by Christians. Poll after poll shows that between 75% and 85% of American citizens identify with some denomination of Christianity, and though this percentage has declined somewhat in recent years, it is still a great majority. It would be correct to say that the U.S. is, in fact if not in law, a Christian nation.

However, there is reason to believe that this widespread commitment is neither as deep nor as substantial as it may at first appear. If one takes the time to look below the surface, the evidence paints a very different picture.

With any kind of poll, there is always the risk that the people polled will give an answer because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say, not because it’s the truth. This is a special risk with polls of religious affiliation. Religion, in our society, has become so linked with ideals of morality and social virtue that people may be tempted to answer that they belong to a certain religion because they think they should, not because they actually practice the religion or know anything about it. Likewise, people’s answers may reflect what they aspire to be, more than what they actually are. (Should someone who goes to church on Christmas and Easter and otherwise has no religious affiliation really call themselves a Christian?)

Consider some of the findings from an excellent August 2005 article in Harper’s magazine, “The Christian Paradox“:

  • Only four in ten Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments (let’s see if I can do it without looking them up: have no other gods, don’t make graven images, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t work on the Sabbath, honor your parents, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, and don’t covet).
  • Astonishingly, even to me, only half can name even one of the four gospels.
  • 12% of Americans – which is something in excess of thirty million people – believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
  • And finally, three-quarters of Americans – very nearly the nation’s entire Christian population – believe that the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves”. This maxim was actually uttered by Benjamin Franklin, and appears nowhere in scripture.

Another source adds even more details, such as that one-third of Americans could not put the following events in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ death, and Pentecost. Half did not know that the Passover story was in the Book of Exodus, or that Moses came chronologically after Isaac and before Saul, Israel’s first king.

Armed with facts like this, the 85% figure begins to look suspect. How deep can a person’s devotion to Christianity be if they have never taken the time to learn even the most basic facts about the book they theoretically believe to be the word of God? There is clearly a substantial disconnect between what Americans profess and what they practice. Granted, the Bible is an excessively long and often tedious book, but that excuse should not be available to a Christian. One would think that, if a person truly believed some book to be the written words of the creator of the universe, they would make the time to read it.

This news ought to be a great source of hope to atheists. If people were actually familiar with the Bible and still believed it, there might be reason to despair, but as it is, there is reason to hope that they believe in it only because they have a false impression of what it contains. If nothing else, it resoundingly confirms one very common aspect of Christian deconversion stories: that the authors were Christian until they actually read the Bible, and discovered for themselves the atrocities, absurdities, and contradictions it contains. The Yale theologian George Lindbeck, lamenting the sorry state of biblical knowledge, wrote that, “When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families”. This is not a coincidence. I would dare say that, if not a majority, then a substantial percentage of lay Christians are still Christians precisely because they have never read the Bible for themselves. Conversely, it is not surprising that those people who are best aware of what that book contains are largely nonbelievers.

Ironically, it is in this respect that I am in full agreement with Christian proselytizers. People should read the Bible, and they should read all of it, not just the parts retold in Sunday-school stories that every believer knows. (I do, however, also believe that people should read the scriptures of other religions and the writings of atheists as well; in that respect, I probably differ from evangelicals who would rather that people should not be exposed to other sources of information.) I am confident that reading it and understanding what it actually says will do far more to aid the atheist cause than any argument we could ever put forward on our own, and would doubtless spur many people who are clinging to Christianity merely out of habit or inertia to take the final step away and join our side.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://supersurvival.blogspot.com Mark Plus

    For awhile I’ve suspected that American anti-intellectualism tends to hinder the growth of fundamentalism. Studying the bible and the supporting theological literature looks way too much like school work to have mass appeal. American christians might feel some admiration for the hardcore zealots among them who really do master all this material, learning to read it in its original languages and so forth — but they also view these people as akin to geeks.

  • Archi Medez

    “Astonishingly, even to me, only half can name even one of the four gospels.”

    That is incredible. The Gospels are the most important part of the New Testament.

    “12% of Americans – which is something in excess of thirty million people – believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

    LOL! When I saw this, thought, how could people have come up with that? Was this “Joan of Arc” a distracter item in a multiple choice question? I.e., maybe 12% guessed at an item, rather than actually believed it? Maybe people just pick that answer for fun because they don’t know. (I looked it up. Noah’s wife’s name is not given, though according to Jewish tradition it is Naamah).

  • Jim Sabiston

    These finding are not really too surprising. The majority of Western religious persons do not necessarily ‘believe’, but instead they go thru the motions to maintain appearances. The primary motivator is to be seen as doing the ‘right thing’ in the eyes of their neighbors. It is simply part of their social construct. Curiously, I expect most are only slightly, if at all, conscious of this state of affairs. This carries over into so-called fundamental Islam as well, where the imams are more concerned with controlling pubic appearances and behavior. However, as you will quickly discover when talking to a wexterner who has spent some time with the locals in the mid-east, all that changes behind closed doors, where most of the restrictions melt away.

    There are two primary exceptions: the hardcore Islamic fundamentalists and evangelical christians, both of whom will gladly poke into your private life to ensure you do not stray.

    The ‘shallowness’ of Western religion gives me hope that we may be able to break the age old pattern of re-iterative religion being passed down thru each new generation. This is, sadly a long way off and there is presently no shortage of people willing to push us back into fundamental religion, as you noted in your recent report on Ava Maria.

  • Quath

    I think most Christians in the USA tend to see God as a cosmic psycologist/parent and Jesus as an invisible buddy for when you are feeling lonely or unhappy. I think they see the Bible as just reinforcing that view and general good morality.

    I don’t think they really want to know more than that. Ignorance is bliss.

  • andrea

    I agree with Quath and would add that the rest of the Christians just read the Bible to support their particular predjudices. It all just comes down to selective reading.

  • Stephen

    I suggest that someone who claims to be a Christian, particularly one claiming moral superiority, should be asked if he/she then accepts the truth of Mark 10:17-25, especially verse 21 (or similar versions in Matthew and Luke). Best asked in church car parks in wealthy areas.

  • Ash

    More interesting could be to see how they hold to the tenets of Christianity. In the UK, surveys such as “what religion are you” give a high level of Christianity, but in practice the UK is more Deist than anything
    Questions such as “was Jesus the son of God”, “Was Jesus actually god” or “Did Jesus die so that sins may be forgiven” would likely result in no from many people who identify with Christianity here, but I suspect that in the US, they may get a “yes” response, even if people don’t know much more than that

  • http://www.votetom.org/ Tom in Cala Dor Palma de Mallorca

    Very fitting I think: “God is the inner principle of all movement, the only identity which already fulfils and illuminates the universe. Everything is incorporated in this one principle, because it encloses infinity, it includes everything, and there is nothing that could be outside of it. ” Giordano Bruno

  • DArren

    I’d be interested to know the results of a survey that first asked “Are you religious?” before conditionally asking “What religion are you?”. This latter question is a somewhat leading question that almost requires a “positive” response. I suspect that “Christian” is the default answer to this question in the Western world and leads to an artificially high census figure. I know many people that unthinkingly write “CofE” (Church of England) in England, not because they are religious in the slightest, but out of patriotism!

  • http://www.sirthinkalot.wordpress.com Sir-Think-A-Lot

    So most Christians are ignorant? Thats not really much of a surprise when you consider that most people are ignorant(yes I’m a cynic)

    Actually I agree with most of whats been said here: most people who answer ‘Christian’ on census’s or polls do so out of habit or because they feel thye are somehow expected to, even though they dont really believe or practice their faith.

    My grandmother usedto make fun of what she called “C&E Christians”. People hwo show up for church services on Christmas and Easter, but never see the inside of a church hte rest of hte year. But I think even a lot of people who go to church every Sunday do so more out of habit than sincere belief, and forget the preacers sermon by the time they drive home.

  • te00294

    I agree with most of the posts here. I tend to think that most people view their religious persuasion much like they do their heritage. I happen to be of Irish descent, but I have no idea where County Cork or Limerick is located, nor do I know any of the real history of Ireland. That doesn’t make me less Irish, just ignorant of my heritage.

    This same attitude is not valid when viewed from the perspective of religious persuasion (I am reticent to start calling it ‘belief’, since so few seem to have actually bothered to study it and follow the guidelines). This makes one ignorant of their religion and therefore less religious. Religion is a choice, even if it was never presented as such. Most people who claim a religious preference really don’t think about it that much. It is a means of identifying with a group.

    I read somewhere that religion is like deodorant – you tend to use the one your parents used.

  • Steve Larsen

    Good post.

    Although I’m diametrically opposed to your world-view.

    Over 20 years ago I de-converted from atheism (in contra-distinction to the deodorant my parents used – see comment above :) and I am aware that the Bible contains so-called “atrocities, absurdities, and contradictions”. However, the reason for my conversion was two-fold: 1) The person/work of Jesus (who is called Christ) and 2) His resurrection from the dead.

    To focus too much on religion as an enemy misses the point – we’re ALL religious in the respect that we desire to worship something (the Scriptures call that idolatry). So the question is “Who or what do you worship?” Why expend so much energy railing against the god-who-doesn’t-exist unless it’s a key component of your worship of the Rational Mind?

    Just some thoughts.

    Of course the “missing link” with respect to your last paragraph (“in full agreement with the Christian proselytizers”) is the person and work of the Holy Spirit that can take the “dead words” of Scripture and give them life.

  • Virginia

    Well, not necessarily a great source of hope if Christians know so little about the Bible — they may be more subjected to manipulation by their preachers,relying solely their “preaching” / “exergis”, and can become even more bigotry.
    The important key is not to drive the Christians to their protective “dens”, but lure them out from the “safety” of their churches or their own forums, and see the real world.

  • sam

    Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. Isaac asimov

  • Thumpalumpacus

    To focus too much on religion as an enemy misses the point – we’re ALL religious in the respect that we desire to worship something (the Scriptures call that idolatry).

    Slow down, Steve. Not all of us feel the way you do; you’re projecting. Besides, even if this statement were correct, you’ve no way of knowing that you are right and the Hindus, say, are wrong.

    I do not “worship” the “rational mind”, either. I merely practice rationality. I highly recommend it.

  • other scott

    “the reason for my conversion was two-fold: 1) The person/work of Jesus (who is called Christ) and 2) His resurrection from the dead.”

    I’ve never quite understood how christians can so revere ‘the works’ of a man who probably didn’t exist and didn’t really DO anything. People claim that Jesus preached love, compassion and forgiveness but these ideas aren’t new. The idea of love didn’t just appear when Jesus clicked his fingers. These ‘works’ are not new, they have been around long before the Christian Era and will be around long after.

    Even if I grant you that Jesus did ANY work at all for the sake of this discussion, where is the evidence of it? Is the evidence in the Crusades? The Spanish Inquisition? The Christian drug dealer? The priest who molests children?

    As for his ressurection, your only source of evidence for this occuring is the bible. The same book that says we all came from one man and one woman who lived in paradise, you can fit two of every animal on the planet into an ark and stoning people is encouraged.

    “we’re ALL religious in the respect that we desire to worship something”

    I don’t really agree with this in the slightest. I think there are quite a lot of people who need to CLING to something bigger than themselves, but to argue we ALL want to worship something is a little too broad of a statement.

    In the end, if Jesus was real, all he did was preach to the poor masses of salvation. It would be akin to somebody today going to a starving village in Africa and telling them that hunger is the way of the lord and is righteous, those who die with an empty belly will be assured everlasting paradise.