Pew poll finds atheists know more about religion than believers

Not my lawyer!

The Times reports today that atheists and agnostics outperformed believers in a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. The survey posed a series of multiple-choice questions about the world religions, the Bible and religious history to randomly-selected respondents, only 8% of whom knew that Maimonides was Jewish. The Pew report is full of fun facts like that, including the news that 45% of Americans believe “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one of the Ten Commandments and, from the control questions, “about six in ten Americans can name the vice president of the United States (59%) and understand that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves (60%).”

I don’t know about you, but my half-completed sound laser now lies in a jumble of broken tubes and tears.* Also, 45% of Catholics didn’t know that their church teaches that communion wine and wafers actually become the blood and body of Jesus Christ. That’s the kind of thing that sounds weird when you just say it, which might explain why atheists are such assiduous collectors of religious facts. As Dave Silverman, president of American atheists, said to the Times, “Atheism is an effect of [religious] knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

When they’re not building sound lasers to shoot at whomever the vice president turns out to be, the rest of the country remains surprisingly ignorant. Just over half could name the Koran as the Muslim holy book, while 63% correctly identified Genesis as the first book of the Bible. That second number is startlingly low for a country in which 76% of the populace identify themselves as Christian. I mean, you’d think they would have at least gotten through the first chapter.

This separation between the number of Americans who declare their religious beliefs and the number who can say what those beliefs are suggests that, in the contemporary United States, religion is more a means of identification than an ethical-existential system. The word “Christian” seems to situate a person in American culture first and the universe second.

That explains why evangelical Christians overwhelmingly supported George W. Bush, whose political platform included two wars and a series of tax cuts for the rich, and why they continue to push for reductions in welfare and other services for the poor and, presumably, lepers. Based on his remarks in the Gospels (45% know which books those are) Jesus probably would not have been a Republican, yet that party continually invokes his authority.

This is an oversimplification of conditions, since a rigorous study of the Bible and its history probably turns up some rationale for abolishing food stamps that adheres perfectly to scripture. Still, it seems that the signature beliefs of many contemporary Christians are more closely related to Sarah Palin, abortion and taxes than to religion. Ironically, the Americans who best understand their own professed beliefs are the ones who profess to believe in no god at all.

Combat! blog is free. Why not share it?
Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Reddit


  1. I think there’s room in this post to broaden the discussion into the political context. I would suggest that most Americans are just as ignorant about their political beliefs as they are about their religion. They rally around simplistic concepts like “lower taxes!” and “patriotism!” and “the constitution!” without having a clue what they’re really talking about. It’s obvious in the numerous ‘man on the street’ interviews that take place at Tea Party rallies. To be fair (and balanced…), there are analogous interviews done at democratic rallies that show the same depth of ignorance. While blindly supporting a catch-phrase without having an idea what it really means is not uniquely American, there is no culture more proud and capable of upholding the tradition.

  2. This is amazing. I love the athiest’s quote.
    I’m a little less surprised that almost half of Catholics don’t know that they’re eating the actual blood and body of Christ; they are likely vaguely aware of the theory but just don’t believe it because it’s fucking ridiculous.
    I once asked a Buddhist Catalan friend what she believed she would be reincarnated as. She wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to believe in reincarnation. “I’ll have to look into that,” she said.
    In a way it’s kind of heartening that nobody actually knows anything about the religions they use as cultural signifiers. If they don’t know the religions’ bullshit, they at least can’t believe it. It also may mean that the religions’ grasp on these folks is getting pretty tenuous, soon to be replaced by a hairstyle, political theory, favorite band…

  3. Obviously if you can get people to be “believers” without really
    checking out their beliefs, you can get them to believe almost
    anything politically if it comes from government which they
    consider coming from “above”.

  4. I hate being the voice of opposition (no I don’t!) but I know more than a few politically-conservative Christians who aligned with Bush despite what seems like contradictory beliefs, and have to give their reasoning it’s due credit. Just because they believe in something, does not mean it should be a part of the government.

    It’s the same reason we aren’t supposed to mix religion and government, despite all our leaders being Christian. Just because they believe in something does not mean it is good for the country to have it be a part of government. The same can reasonably be said for charity. Just because Joe Christianity believes in charity for the poor, he does not have to believe that it is in the country’s best interest for an excessive welfare program to be instituted.

    Of course then we get into the discussion of what is excessive (since I don’t believe any rational Christian would want to completely do away with all social welfare programs in exchange for a permanent state of war) but at least it is a legitimate discussion to be had.

    But this post doesn’t seem to be about the rational Christians- it is about the uninformed evangelical Christians, which is a much better read anyway. So in the end, I guess I am just sayin’ stuff…

  5. This brushes by a discussion I was having last night while watching Ann Coulter on Larry King Live. Everyone in the room agreed that she was a terrible person, but I was giving her props for knowing what she believed and being able to express why. Nevermind that she’s wrong on a number of issues, I think it’s good to have cogent beliefs that one is aware enough of to articulate. Better even, to be wrong and cogent, than be right and “the man on the street.”

    This study emphasizes the fact that most people walk around believing in shit without knowing it’s details, and that is frightening to me. Thankfully, those types of people are less likely to vote than stop and talk to people with cameras. Ann Coulter fucking votes, Satan bless her.

    I wonder which system would work better: a hypothetical one in which people who know what they believe and why sit in a room and debate issues, segregated from all the people who believe “globalization is tyranny” or “Muslim Obama” without knowing why; or the system we have now with informed people aligning along a political spectrum, joining teams called parties, and duking it out for votes among masses of mostly uninformed people. I’m inclined to feel like any system that relied on debating with people like Ann Coulter is doomed to failure, while the game of swaying uninformed masses boils down to a coin toss. It’s a random dice roll in a game of chance. Maybe the parties can try and sway the outcome some marginal amount with their tactics, but it appears that we always switch horses in midterm elections anyway, and most districts in the country are staunchly one party or the other, so the effort is mostly moot. Goldwater, Palin, it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a different spin on the same pattern of shit. But since the masses are a random element, the people play the game happily enfranchised, whether they’re the informed elite or the men on the street. When your team wins you feel good, hopechange is on the way. And when you lose you just vow to hate everything for the term and get’em next time.

    Everyone is happier this way. I guess the only real question is whether you’d rather be with the people being swayed or putting in the work to be a swayer.

  6. Faith is the belief in things unseen, by definition.

    In reality, protestations of faith (and patriotism) are at least as much a function of tribalism as adherence to a code of moral teachings or religious history.

    See former Roman Catholic/former atheist/former writer about vampires/former born again christian Anne Rice’s recent decision to no longer call herself a christian but to remain a “follower of Christ”.

  7. This is one of my favorite topics, thanks for the humorous post.
    It’s necessary to acknowledge the importance of religion in a historical perspective. Yes, I know about the Crusades and Salem witch trials. But on whole religion has been good for society. Mankind needed a strong pyramid shaped social hierarchy to evolve. The organization and mobilization of man power brought great prosperity.

    On the other hand, we can’t forget the influence of money on most religious institutions in America. That’s a whole new blog.

  8. One of the more jaw-dropping illustrations for me of religion’s stupid-making power was learning that my housemate at the time — an avowed Christian and a lawyer with a master’s in philosophy — thought the Gospels were written by the apostles.

Leave a Comment.