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, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Share Your Thoughts

5 thoughts on “Don’t Know Much About Religion

  1. Tim,
    I thought the exact same things you wrote so eloquently. As for what I think…it doesn’t bother me. I think we have done a poor job teaching what all religions believe (and I may not mean that the way it sounds). I think that those that gravitate toward postmodernism have corrupted truth to be too inclusive about God and His nature and have created people that simply don’t care what religions (Christianity specifically) adhere to doctrinally.
    It doesn’t bother me though because I believe I am part of the solution teaching what God’s word says and showing how to gently proclaim this truth in the world. I hope and pray others will take this survey as a challenge to teach what is right and true and not let “atheists/agnostics” hijack what we truly believe and not the stereotypes they put on us in the media.

  2. DA,
    We seem to have understood one another on a few of the points (while not disagreeing), so I’ll spend my time here on the ones you seem most passionate about. On the issue of religious people (particularly in science) not speaking their true beliefs out for fear of the church. If one chooses to operate on the evidence that actually exists, there is none to support the fact that most religious intellectuals stayed quiet for fear of the church. I cited the one clear example I know of (understanding there may be a few more), but even that example is one in which the scientist did speak out and was persecuted (Galileo–but he did believe in God). I could just as easily say atheists are really Christians deep down they just don’t want to suffer the ridicule of their atheist friends…and we would have equal evidence to support our positions. We shouldn’t attempt to rewrite history or reality based on what we wish happened. The evidence is overwhelmingly on the other side…centuries upon centuries of faith being a result, in part, of reason.
    On the 2nd point, I might even say most people raised in faith choose between their faith heritage and agnosticism/atheism. They typically don’t care to, or aren’t taught much about other religions. We can disagree about which happens more–I’m certainly willing to agree some take the faith journey you describe. Just not most. This doesn’t mean their faith isn’t their own. One mustn’t explore every possible belief for it to be their own, or for their conclusion to be correct. Faith is put to the test constantly over one’s lifetime…even if one doesn’t test it against anything else. But, as I said, most Christians choose between belief in God or not, and whether to live as a Christian or live as a practical atheist. That’s doesn’t mean they are ignorant of everything else, or that they must explore Wicca, Zoroastrianism and all other religions either for Christianity to be legitimate or their faith their own. Many atheists have never, for instance, listened to intelligent Christians present their faith or practiced Christianity before deciding to become atheists. I would assume you would agree that doesn’t disqualify atheism as potentially legitimate or their belief couldn’t be their own. At another level, Christianity is true or untrue regardless of human belief.
    I would encourage you to consider again the belief that despite what the data gives us, atheists are far more numerous both throughout history and presently. If the data (like the Pew study) is good for atheists to use to benefit them, perhaps it’s good data when it doesn’t benefit their positions as well.

  3. Please excuse the spelling and grammar errors in my previous comment, I was on my phone and the T9 caused some problems. I will try reply to your comment in the order that you wrote it.
    I’ll assume you meant intelligent people in place of the first “religious”, because it’s only a given that religious people are religious haha. Anyway, your claim did not say all were religious, this is true. However, you did talk specifically about these intellectuals being believers in God and some even of Jesus Christ, not merely being religious. Therefore there WAS a church to declare heresy of any claims that could have been made. I don’t assume that ALL intellectuals were closet atheists, but the ones that made significant advances in scientific fields likely did not agree completely with ideas of the church, but did not say so out of fear, speaking specifically about the Christian church, although I’m sure Islamic intellectuals had similar problems.
    My second objections was not assuming the people come to faith when they are adults, children learning was just as important. Kids in church are always told that they should make their faith in God their own, and not base it off of their parents, or their church-going friends, or their minister. Therefore it still goes back to my point of it being the first religion they had contact with. If they truly want to make a faith their own, they must first explore others to make sure of where their faith lies. Otherwise it’s not really faith, like I said, it is simply the first religion to reach them.
    Also, I have read through the NY Times article, I failed to see where it said the questions given had to do with social policy, so that takes away from part of the “home field advantage.”
    I also was not aware that it was part of the American Atheist’s agenda to spread information of other religions and social policies, but although it may give them a little of an advantage, that knowledge is not something to look down upon; if anything, the blame should be on the religious that don’t know those things for being more ignorant.
    You do have somewhat of a point about the weight of the questions, however I would assume (and hope) that that type of thing would be controlled for in the study, because if not it calls into question the validity of it. Assuming they did their job and controlled for it, then that shouldn’t be a problem.
    A longer survey could be more precise, but you also have to consider the question that the people answering the questions (over the phone) could become bored and stop trying in order to get it over with, which would cause them to get more questions wrong and would upset the survey results.
    Concerning the rise and fall, I understood in America, and as I was on my phone, it was too difficult to scroll up to look what it was, so my mistake. However, aside from a Jewish-sponsored website which doesn’t cite its sources, I can’t really find anything that refers to a decline in atheism worldwide either, so if you could post a link with your source it would be appreciated. All the sources I’ve found have said that over the last 10-15 years it has been on a slow but steady rise.
    I believe that in many would prefer to claim to not be affiliated with any religion rather than atheist or agnostic. The term atheist has been somewhat demonized in this country as someone who is aggressively and actively against religion; I have even heard of some (ignorant) people saying that atheists are devil worshippers! The irony there is obvious. My point is that many that are in fact atheists do not want to be labelled a name that has such negative connotations.
    Also, it is surprising how few people know what the term “agnostic” means.
    Lastly, the polls can only show what people identify themselves as. It is a point you brought up in your original article; the results can only show what people say they are, meaning they can identify with whatever they like, whether they are actually a part of that faith and are typical of it or not.
    Thank you for your reply, and I await your response

  4. DA,
    Some interesting perspectives. I’ll try to answer these as concisely as possible. Thanks for feeding back.
    As to question 1, I didn’t claim “all” religious people of the past were religious…but most. and that applies to those of religions beyond Christianity which are even older. There was no “church” to claim heresy, and it doesn’t seem accurate to assume that all intellectuals of the past simply spit back to the church what it wanted to hear for fear, while secretly believing otherwise. I will grant that some, like Galileo, experienced persecution because they offered alternative views, but it’s quite a leap to say all Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., have all been closet atheists. Maybe that’s not what you’re suggesting. So, if you want to, feel free to qualify your statement.
    Your second objection assumes that all people come to faith as adults, after a thorough examination and memorization of other faiths. That simply isn’t the case, though it is for some. My point is that for atheists, part of the agenda is proving to people of all faiths God’s non-existence. That requires a study of those religions. Part of American Atheists agenda, for instance, is the shaping of social policy that excludes religion. This requires a knowledge of both policy and religions of various types. That isn’t the part of every religion’s agenda. I’m suggesting the survey provided a “home-field” advantage for atheists. I understand people can logically disagree with that assessment, however.
    As to question 3, it seems to me that all religious questions are not equal, if one is trying to assess actual religious knowledge. The width of the Nile and the original leader of Christianity (Jesus) shouldn’t be equally weighted. Even if they aren’t, and Egyptian is more likely to know the answer to the Nile question than an Antarctican. Hyperbole obviously, but I hope you get the point. The questions should (and to some extent were by race, etc.) be weighted by the “should know” factor, which is subjective, but then again, all surveys are to some extent.
    As to 4, the NY Times has it’s perspective and biases. Their rapid decline is for me an indication of their “outoftouchness.” They make a habit of ridiculing Christianity mostly because their reading audience is somewhat secular, liberal elites. That’s not a slam on the NYT or it’s readers (I read the NYT), but just my perspective.
    Fifth, I would shape the survey in a weighted fashion (by religious significance) that also covered fewer social policy questions. I might also make the survey longer, and thus perhaps more precise.
    As to atheism’s rise or fall, I said atheism is on the decline worldwide. The study you cite is an American religious study, not a worldwide study. Atheism is on the decline worldwide. Christianity and Islam in particular are making major advances in parts of the world that have been strongholds of atheism (like Russia and China). One additional point would be the Pew study you cite simply says those claiming “no religious affiliation” is on the rise…not atheism. Atheists comprise 1.6% of the “non-affiliated” studies, with agnostics at another 2.4%. The “religious unaffiliated” outnumber the self-identified atheists and agnostics combined.
    Lastly, FANTASTIC comment. It’s thoughtful, civil, and raises some great points. Thanks for posting.

  5. While the study is not foolproof, there are a few things wrong with your analyzations. First, your claim that all intelligent people of the past were religious.. Of course they were, they had no other choice. To claim anything else would have been declared heresy by the church and they would at best be extradited and expelled from the town, and at worst burned at the stake or any one of the horrific things the church back then took part in.
    Second, having the survey be on a broad range of religions does not bias it towards atheists/agnostics. Folowing a certain religion implies that other religions were learned about, considered, and decided against. This means that one should know about other religions, thither they follow them or not. Not having done so would imply that one simply and blindly follows the first religion they came across, anther it was taught to them as a child or they came to it later. This would mean that the faith is not truely their own because they did not chaired other possibilities, they si just came across it first.
    Third, a question from me; why should questions be weighed differently? That would upset the vidity of the survey, atleast in the way I’m thinking they would be weighed differently. Perhaps you have a different idea.
    Fourth, if so many people are religious, why would the NY Times intentionally ridicule religious people. They want to keep as many readers as they can, so they would more likely set out to please the majority rather than upset them.
    Fifth, the study gives the results it got; what other analysis do u believe is needed?
    Lastly, atheism is not on the decline; it is in fact on the rise.