A new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that atheists and agnostics have the greatest religious knowledge, answering on average 20.9 of 32 questions correctly. The overall average was 16 of the 32 correct, a 50 percent pass rate. Hispanic Catholics did the worst, getting just 11.6 correct on average.
On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion.
Some other results:
- 89 percent said public school teachers cannot lead a class in prayer
- 71 percent identified Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace
- 68 percent said the majority religion in Pakistan is Islam
- 63 percent identified Genesis as the first book of the Bible
- 55 percent knew the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments
- 52 percent identified Ramadan as the Islamic holy month
- 51 percent identified the Dalai Lama as Buddhist
- 46 percent said Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation
- 45 percent said the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday
- 38 percent associated Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism
- 36 percent correctly said public school teachers can teach a class comparing the world’s religions
- Only 23 percent knew public school teachers can read from the Bible as an example of literature
The survey also asked several non-religious questions for comparative purposes.
- 59 percent named Joe Biden as the current vice president
- 59 percent knew antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses
- 71 percent identified Charles Darwin with the theory of evolution by natural selection
- 42 percent identified Herman Melville as the author of “Moby Dick” (18 percent said Nathaniel Hawthorne; 4 percent said Stephen King; 2 percent said Edith Wharton; 33 percent didn’t know)
- 31 percent identified the Scopes trial as the trial that dealt with teaching evolution in public schools (36 percent said Brown v. Board of Education; 3 percent said the Salem witch trials)
Why would atheists and agnostics be more knowledgeable about religious trivia? “These are people who thought a lot about religion,” Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum, told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”
“I think that what happens for many Christians is, they accept their particular faith, they accept it to be true and they stop examining it. Consequently, because it’s already accepted to be true, they don’t examine other people’s faiths,” Kansas Methodist minister Rev. Adam Hamilton said. “That, I think, is not healthy for a person of any faith.”
Politics Daily’s Jeffrey Weiss attributes the survey’s findings to the Religion Congruence Fallacy, in which “Americans who say they belong to a particular religious tradition tend not to act like it.”
Boston University professor Stephen Prothero, writing at CNN, argues that the Pew findings reveal the need for religious public school classes.
Believers and nonbelievers obviously disagree on the virtues and vices of religion. But all careful observers of the world should be able to agree on this: From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world. It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy. I have called in the past for mandatory public school courses on the Bible and the world’s religions to remedy this problem. The time for such courses is now.