Atheist Pride in Understanding Religion

September 28, 2010

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has released a study about who understands religion, saying that:

"Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge."

The LA Times reports on this new finding ,  

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.

The New York Times comments on this study:

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  “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.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman over at the Faith and Reason blog of USA Today isn't too impressed:

What do the answers say about the role God may/may not play in your life, the influence of religious doctrines and practices, or how your faith or lack of it shapes your moral life in the world? Even if we flunk Religion 101, do we know why this matters?

Maybe Grossman thinks she is helping believers with such comforting words. Let me reply with suggestions why knowledge about religion really matters.

First, intellectual laziness and outright ignorance has no excuse. If you don't understand what you supposedly believe in, you have no right to suppose that your beliefs are better than anyone else's. For religious people to even suggest, "So what, real belief doesn't depend on understanding what my religion says," then we are looking at an embarrassing collapse of standards. Unfortunately, this collapse of standards doesn't automatically mean a collapse of faith -- just the opposite. With too many religious leaders encouraging followers to just rely on sheer faith, we are only looking at a hardening of stubborn conviction.This is a trap, but there is a way out.

Atheists who have some comprehension of religion and how its ideological system works should rightfully be proud, as proud as atheists satisfied with knowing naturalism alone. And all atheists should be encouraged to put their knowledge to good use. Those atheists who want to publicly engage believers in civil discourse will admirably support the rational and naturalistic worldview, and probably open up more cracks of doubt in believers. There is no reason at all to just assume, as a few atheists do, that no intellectual engagement with religion is possible or worthwhile. As I repeatedly urge, atheists do have the superior worldview and our intellectual leadership from Richard Dawkins to Daniel Dennett and many more, too numerous to name, should be our role models. Recommending some familiarity with religious thinking is no treacherous betrayal, but wise counsel.

Atheists capable of guiding public discourse about religion, and capable of showing religious people a dignified and smart way to abandon religion's delusions, are heroic figures in these dangerous times. We must use every strategy possible to confront religion. From the sparks of slashing debate to the smiles of pointed blasphemy, atheists can do it with our wits.