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.