Atheists, Agnostics Trump Believers in Religious Knowledge Test

September 28, 2010

Are atheists, agnostics and nonbelievers in America ignorant about religion?  According to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, they know more about faith than most of their religious counterparts.

As reported by the New York Times , researchers from the Pew Forum telephoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity, other world religions, famous religious figures, and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.  "On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith."

Yet those who scored highests were atheists and agnostics, along with two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. According to the Pew Forum, the results were identical even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.  Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the Pew Forum, said that "[e]ven after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey."

Believers still trumped nonbelievers on questions related to the Bible and Christianity; Mormons and evangelical Protestants scored highest.  On questions about world religions (such as Islam, Buddhism, Judiasm and Hinduism), however, atheists, agnostics and Jews scored highest.

The level of ignorance about Americans' own faiths is rather astonishing:

Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

As reported by the Times, "The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic."


UPDATE: For a deeper analysis of this topic, see John Shook's related post on Free Thinking .