As you’ve probably heard, the Pew Forum has released a study on American religious knowledge. And their top finding deserves to be heard far and wide: atheists and agnostics outscored every other religious group – even evangelicals!
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. 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… perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s well-established by now that most American theists are abysmally ignorant of the religion they profess: I wrote a post about this topic over four years ago. But the finding that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable is a nice little cherry on top!
That said, I’m not writing this post to gloat; I’m saying that this is what we should expect. Christianity is still the default option in American society, and tens of millions of people with no real commitment to that faith have been indoctrinated into thinking of themselves as Christians. On the other hand, it’s still rare that people are raised atheist from birth. Most people who become atheists take that step because they’ve made an effort to investigate religious teachings and make up their own mind. The New York Times has a nice little stinger of a quote from Dave Silverman of American Atheists:
“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.”
Silverman’s point is excellently put. The virtue of this study is that it dispels the myth, still bandied about by proselytizers, that atheists are “afraid of the gospel”. Instead, it supports the explanation that we’re atheists because we’ve sincerely considered the claims of religion and found them unconvincing.
Truthfully, I wish more Americans would read the Bible. After all, it’s not as if people who are ignorant of its contents will be easily shamed into becoming atheists. More likely, they’ll just believe whatever their preacher tells them is in there. And when their preacher tells them that the Bible says God wants everyone to be rich and that being poor is a divine curse, or when their preacher tells them that God wants America to invade Iraq, or when their preacher tells them that Jesus argues for public prayer and the merging of church and state – when they hear those things from the pulpit, they believe them, and we’ve witnessed firsthand what the results are. If people read the Bible for themselves, they probably wouldn’t be cured of sexism or homophobia or religious intolerance, but they might at least absorb some of its occasional teachings about universal love and social justice.
On that topic, I also wanted to mention this article, about how churches across the country are struggling with a lack of donations. The recession has accelerated the dropoff, but it’s not the sole cause. Donations to churches have been slowly declining over the past forty years. As older, more religious generations fade away, they’re not being replaced by younger members:
A 2007 study by three professors at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis found that baby boomers in 2000 were donating about 10 percent less to religious bodies than their parents’ generation did at a comparable age in 1973 — and almost 25 percent less than those parents, by then ages 62 to 76, were donating in 2000.
And this is a phenomenon that crosses denominational lines, from conservative synagogues to evangelical megachurches. As an explanation, the article cites a study which found that baby boomers are “more likely to construct a personal sense of spirituality than to subscribe to a denominational or even congregational one”.
But I think this ignores a far simpler explanation: donations are declining because more people are becoming atheists, and fewer trust religion to be able to answer their dilemmas. It’s not a lack of trust in institutions in general, but the simple recognition that religion’s factual claims are unsupported and its moral beliefs are often cruel, arbitrary, and irrational – relics of a less moral and more superstitious past. Why should people donate their time and money to churches which have repeatedly failed to offer proof for their claims of authority, much less use that authority wisely to advance the good?