Don’t Know Much About Religion

New-York-Times A recent New York Times article reported the results of a Pew Religious Forum study on the religious understanding of Americans. The NYT reports:

"Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life."

The online browser headline offered one of the key findings: "Atheists Outdo Some Believers in Survey on Religion." Some have already begun to use this as some sort of proof that atheists are more knowledgeable than believers on the subject of religion–even suggesting this 32 question survey given to 3400 Americans is proof that the smarter one gets, the less religious they become.This goes against not only reason but historical fact. The majority of intellectuals in nearly every field of thought in every period of history have been believers in God…if not even in Christ.

Now, to the study itself: There are a couple of reasons I am not that concerned about the results of the study:

  • Methodologically, the survey is biased toward atheists/agostics and pluralists. The questions were not all on the Bible or Christianity (though some were), they were on world religions (including Christianity) and public policy. Those who are devotees of a particular faith are less likely to know as much about others (a whole other subject), as their time is devoted to following that particular faith. Accordingly, Mormons and Evangelicals tested the highest on questions on Christianity and the Bible. Also, each question was weighed the same. It seems to me that to get an accurate conclusion certain questions might need to be weighted more heavily than others.
  • The fact that Protestant Christians answer 3 fewer questions correct (not a significant number) on world religions and public policy than atheist/agnostics doesn't really bother me–though I wish more Christians were more educated on world religions and public policy. What would have been cause for great concern is if atheists/agnostics beat Christians in knowledge of things Christian. That would have been noteworthy. 
  • Methodologically, those surveyed "self-identified" themselves as belonging to a particular faith tradition. This doesn't mean they are actually of that tradition, nor typical of people in that faith tradition. The Pew Study itself (not the NYT article) says: "People with the highest levels of religious commitment – those who say that they attend worship services at least once a week and that religion is very important in their lives – generally demonstrate higher levels of religious knowledge than those with medium or low religious commitment. Having regularly attended religious education classes or participated in a youth group as a child adds more than two questions to the average number answered correctly, compared with those who seldom or never participated in such activities. And those who attended private school score more than two questions better on average than those who attended public school when they were growing up. Interestingly, however, those who attended a private religiousschool score no better than those who attended a private nonreligious school."

There are a couple of reasons I'm pretty concerned about the results of the study.

  • One is more concern about the article printed in the NY Times, which reads like an article with an agenda to make religious people look silly, and atheists/agnostics intelligent. Not only does the article point out the most embarassing points of ignorance among only those who are not atheists, it offers no real analysis of the results other than to give the microphone to a jubilant Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists. Silverman says, “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.” Really? If that's the case, I would urge him to find a better way, given the belief of the vast, vast majority of the world's population believes in God, and 1/3 believe in the Bible. Atheism is also on the decline worldwide. Keep giving out those Bibles, Mr. Silverman.
  • 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. That's not good.

If you read the article, or based on just what's mentioned here–what are your thoughts? Does this worry you? Anger you? Sadden you? Make you think, "Who cares?"

 

 

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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