1944 Pulitzer Prize: College Freshmen Ignorant Of HistoryA common complaint that theists make about atheists, agnostics, and anyone who criticizes religion, is that they’re working from a position of ignorance. That is, they don’t know anything about religion. In my experience, this is the opposite of the truth … most non-believers I know are much more conversant in religion than believers are. Until now that was just my own assumption, with nothing to back it up. The folks at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, however, released poll results suggesting that I’m correct. The Los Angeles Times reports on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey (WebCite cached article):

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term “blind faith.”

The article immediately lists several specific questions that many believers failed to answer correctly:

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church’s central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.

Atheists and agnostics — those who believe there is no God or who aren’t sure — were more likely to answer the survey’s questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey’s measurement of religious knowledge — so close as to be statistically tied.

The L.A. Times interviewed an expert who basically agrees with my own assumption as to why this is the case:

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

“These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.

The Pew Forum’s own report on this survey is available online, if you care to look (cached).

I’ve found that a similar trend applies to all skeptics of every type: they usually know more about what they’re debunking — no matter what it might be, whether it’s the paranormal, or “alternative medicine,” or “free energy,” whatever — than do those who accept it or believe in it. The widespread assumption that skepticism proceeds from ignorance is quite false.

Hat tip: Teller (of Penn & Teller fame).

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