Among those who consider themselves religiously unaffiliated, otherwise known as the “Nones,” atheists and agnostics know the most about religion.
In addition to atheists and agnostics, the “Nones” include those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” That latter group knows less about religion than those who don’t believe or aren’t sure about the existence of god(s) in the first place, according to the Pew Research Center.
Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than most other religious groups, while people who identify as “nothing in particular” are among the least knowledgeable. Out of 32 multiple-choice questions on the survey, atheists and agnostics get more than half right, on average (17.9 and 17.0 questions correct, respectively), while those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” get about a third correct (11.4 questions). This means that atheists and agnostics are among the highest scorers on the survey – along with Jews and evangelical Protestants – while those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” have some of the lowest scores. Americans overall get an average of 14.2 out of 32 questions right.
The study further revealed that “Nones” tend to know at least the basics of the Christian tradition’s beliefs, and that atheists know just as much about Christianity as believers themselves.
Atheists (and to a lesser extent, agnostics) are on a par with Catholics and Protestants in correctly answering questions about Catholicism and Protestantism. Seven-in-ten atheists and agnostics know that Catholicism teaches that purgatory is the place where souls are purified before entering heaven – about the same share as Catholics who correctly define purgatory (71%). And roughly half of atheists (47%) know that Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine used for Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, equal to the 50% of Catholics who know this.
When asked to pick the tradition (Protestantism, Catholicism, both or neither) that believes salvation comes through faith alone – a key Protestant teaching that’s known as “sola fide” – roughly equal shares of atheists (25%) and Protestants (28%) respond correctly.
Even more interestingly, atheists and agnostics are also the most knowledgeable about subjects unrelated to the Christian religion. They outperformed every group except Jews on other traditions.
Out of 13 questions in the survey about non-Christian world religions including Islam, Judaism and Hinduism, atheists correctly answer an average of 6.1 and agnostics get 5.8 right, compared with an average of about 4.3 among Americans overall. For example, eight-in-ten atheists and agnostics (78% each) know that Ramadan is an Islamic holy month, compared with half (51%) of U.S. adults in the “nothing in particular” category. Seven-in-ten atheists (69%) and agnostics (70%) know that yoga is most closely associated with Hinduism, compared with roughly half of those in the “nothing in particular” category (48%). And about four-in-ten atheists and agnostics (43% each) correctly state that the Kabbalah is most closely associated with Judaism, while roughly a quarter of “nothing in particulars” (23%) know this.
It’s well known that atheists tend to know more about religion than believers – after all, learning about religions is the very thing that made many of us atheists in the first place. But it’s nice to see studies proving it.