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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.

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A new poll from the Pew Research Center indicates a significant increase in public opinion that President Barack Obama is a Muslim (he is a Christian) — from 11 percent in March 2009 to 18 percent today. There has been an even more massive drop in the belief that Obama is Christian — from 48 to 34 percent.

The poll (read the complete report here [PDF]) was conducted from July 21 through August 5 — meaning it doesn’t even take into account Obama’s recent discussion of the controversial Park51 project in New York.

The shift was greatest among Republicans (up 14 percent) and especially conservative Republicans (up 16 percent). However, the belief that Obama is a Muslim increased at least slightly in every category, including Democrats (3 percent) and liberal Democrats (1 percent).

Explanations vary:

  • White House “faith adviser Joshua DuBois blamed “misinformation campaigns” by the president’s opponents.”
  • George Mason University history professor Rick Shenkman “was not surprised by the recently reported rise in people who were not sure of Obama’s religion, since ‘people follow the news so loosely that they are susceptible to any wild idea’ and ‘myths are part of a larger narrative that people construct in their heads to make sense out of seismic events and upheavals.’”
  • [T]he shifting attitudes about the president’s religious beliefs could also be the result of a public growing less enamored of him and increasingly attracted to labels they perceive as negative. In the Pew poll, 41 percent disapprove of Obama’s job performance, compared with 26 percent disapproval in its March 2009 poll. [From The Washington Post]
  • “Dr. Clyde Wilcox, professor of government at Georgetown University, says what is driving the president’s sinking approval ratings is the economy. ‘If the economy were resurrected from the dead like Lazarus, then you would see less of this,’ he said. [From Fox News]
  • A Washington Times editorial blames Obama’s words and actions: “[I]n a February 2008 interview with the New York Times, Mr. Obama said the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, is ‘one of the prettiest sounds on Earth at sunset.’ He then recited it, ‘with a first-class [Arabic] accent.’ The opening of the Adhan contains the Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, proclaiming, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God.’ Stating this before two Muslims is the traditional requirement for joining the Islamic faith. Adding fuel to the fire is Mr. Obama’s family heritage: born of a Muslim father and raised by a Muslim stepfather. Under Shariah law, having a Muslim father makes one a Muslim, though this custom has no legal standing in the United States.”

There is one possible explanation no one seems to have brought up. Could it also be a tinge of the Bradley effect, which has to do with discrepancies between polls and votes cast in elections between a white and a non-white candidate? Several articles examined the possible Bradley effect in the 2008 presidential election. It’s not too difficult to imagine people already convinced Obama is a Muslim saying otherwise during the height of his election-era popularity, but almost two years later are more willing to openly state their opinion as the belief Obama is a Muslim grows.

Obviously, no one can say for sure what the cause behind this massive shift is. Experience and common sense, however, mean it is likely to be a little bit of all the explanations.

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