Atheists Rank #1 in Religious Literacy in America

In his 2007 book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know- And Doesn’t, Boston University professor Stephen Prothero claimed, “Americans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.” While he supported his argument with solitary findings from public opinion polls, he pointed out that at the time of writing his book, there was not a comprehensive, national survey evaluating religious knowledge among American adults.

That changed this year, when the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religious and Public Life developed and administered a nationwide 32-question phone survey from May 19 – June 6. The survey called on 3,412 Americans to better gauge a baseline of where Americans stand in knowledge of their own religion, other religions, and how these religions play out in American history and the public sphere.  Prothero served as an advisor and results and analysis were released by Pew Research on September 28.  

On average, American respondents answered 16 of the 32 questions correctly.  Atheists and agnostics ranked highest in religious knowledge, answering an average of 20.9 answers correctly.  Jews, who answered 20.5 questions correctly, and Mormons, who averaged 20.3 in correct responses, closely followed them.  Protestants trailed behind with an average of 16 correct answers, and Catholics came in at the bottom with an average of 14.7 correct answers.  Muslim, Hindus, and Buddhists were surveyed, but their response numbers in comparison with the other groups were too small to report statistically significant results.

Twelve of the survey questions focused on Christianity.  On average, Mormons (7.9) and Protestants (7.3) demonstrated the highest levels of knowledge out of all the groups.  Jews (7.9) and atheists/agnostics (7.5) came out much more strongly in their understanding of world religions, which accounted for 11 of the survey questions.  They were also strongest in correctly answering questions about the role of religion in public life.

Among the findings, here are some I find particularly interesting:

  • 53% of the Protestant respondents couldn’t correctly identify Martin Luther as the force behind the Protestant Reformation.
  • 43% of the Jewish respondents did not know that Maimonides, one of the most revered rabbis in history, was Jewish.
  • 47% of the total respondents knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist.
  • 38% of the total respondents correctly correlated Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism.
  • 27% of the total respondents correctly answered that most of Indonesia’s population is Muslim (the country is also home to the largest Muslim population in the world).
  • 36% of the total respondents correctly answered that comparative religion classes are allowed in public schools.
  • The most common correctly answered question: Do U.S. Supreme Court rulings allow public school teachers to lead their classes in prayer?  89% correctly said no.
  • The most common incorrectly answered question: Are public school teachers allowed to use the Bible as an example of literature in a secular context?  67% incorrectly said no.

So what drives the rate of religious knowledge amongst the different sects?  Researchers point out education as the single best predictor.  On average, atheists/agnostics and Jews maintain higher education levels than Mormons, Protestants and Catholics.  They also found that whites scored better than minorities, men scored better than women, younger generations scored better than those over 65, and respondents in other regions of the country scored better than those living in the South.

Perhaps the most talked about finding is that according to this representative sample, the average American atheist knows more about religion than the average Christian.  Alan Cooperman, associate director of research at the Pew Forum, says this is because many atheists and agnostics tend to come from religious upbringings, went through periods of reflection and study, and consciously gave religion up.  “I gave a Bible to my daughter,” said American Atheists president Dave Silverman, “That’s how you make atheists.”  Cooperman goes on to say that “these are people who thought a lot about religion.  They’re not indifferent.  They care about it.” 

“This confirms what we already suspected,” says Silverman.  “Atheists often reach their conclusions about the universe by examining the claims of religion and then finding these claims to be wanting.  This is why we challenge every believer to read, study and question their holy book.  Give it serious thought before you give it your time and your money.”

This makes sense to me.  Although I was born Muslim and raised by my very strict, radical Shia father, I would probably choose agnostic if I were pressed to identify myself as something today.  It’s not that I don’t like Islam.  I have a very high respect for the Koran, but organized religion as a whole, not just Islam, is too politically abstract to settle well with me and how I choose to privately, and publicly, identify myself.  It caused a lot of strife between my father and I, and ultimately led to our current relationship: estrangement.

Yet there were very rare, overlooked points where a consensus between our differing beliefs seemed to fleet by.  I remember one in particular, during my early years of college, not too long before we parted ways for good.  One Sunday morning, my father asked me what I thought of Christianity:

“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems nice in theory, but the people kind of freak me out.”  

I also couldn’t get over the idea that only Christians could be saved.  It made Heaven sound more exclusive than the Baghdad Country Club.

“Good,” he told me.  “I’m glad.  I would rather you be an atheist than one of these Jesus parrots.  At least this way, if you reject religion, it means you understand something about it.  You’re not following it blindly.”  And that was it.  He never mentioned a word on the subject again.  And our relationship dissolved before I could ask. 

Maybe it was that he decided to pick his battles with me, and he realized that religiosity wasn’t one of them.  So what’s the next best thing?  For me to actually know a damn about the faith he saw me as walking away from.  In the end, this is an important factor to remember when looking at this Pew Research survey.  These questions didn’t set out to measure Americans’ level of spiritual devotion, but their basic grasp at superficial knowledge of documented facts or tenants.  Respondents weren’t asked how much they “know God,” but how much they know about him.  At the same time, to see results where Americans couldn’t even answer basic questions about their own faith, makes me wonder how “very important” religion really is in America. 

For what it’s worth, I didn’t start caring about religion until I stopped practicing it.

It’s one thing to know about God on an intellectual level and not know him on a spiritual level, per se, but the reverse doesn’t make much rational sense.  I know about the President, but I don’t know him personally, and that makes sense.  If I did know him, it’s only logical to assume that I also know about him.  Basically, you can have knowledge without faith, but I’m not so sure you can have faith without knowledge.  So when that equation doesn’t play out in that order, it makes me wonder how genuine, or shallow, faith is in America.  Is it really a direction in life, or is it a tidy way to categorize us into communities of like-minded individuals?  Is organized religion really a means of organizing people?

As much as I support the mission of places like the Cordoba House in Manhattan, I can’t help but wonder how successful interfaith discourse can be when a representative sample of the general population demonstrates the lack of academic knowledge nationwide in both one’s own and other’s religions.  If you can’t get the facts and tenants straight, how are you supposed to move beyond the foundational level of rote knowledge, into the less definable area of dialogue?  It’s ignorance, and it really demonstrates not only a lack of self-respect for a person’s own spirituality, but also a lack of communal respect for the spirituality of others. 

How seriously do we take religion in this country?  “Very lightly”?  It makes me wonder how qualified some of us are in taking part of public debates, because even though we were established as a secular country, there has always been a tight knit ménage a trios between politics, religion, and international relations.  How can a person talk about Tibet and not know the Dalai Lama is Buddhist?  Or about Indonesia and not know it’s mostly Muslim?  We’re handicapped if we don’t know the basics.  Prothero commented that since 9/11, we’ve failed to have constructive conversations about religions, especially Islam.  “Civic conversation about religion is simply the assertion of identity,” he says. “This is me, you’re not me, therefore go away.”  

Ray Suarez of PBS News Hour has likened public debate to confetti, where everyone just throws stuff out there.  It creates a cluttered mess, with no content or intellectual curiosity to make it worth saving, where do all these shredded bits of opinion end up?  A dustpan on its way to the dumpster.

Maybe that’s why atheists and agnostics representatively demonstrate a higher religious literacy rate than those who do believe in God or faith.  Silverman states, “Atheism is an effect of knowledge [of religion], not a lack of knowledge.”  If you follow that train of thought, knowledge leads to distance leads to outsider.  Outsider status may have quite a bit to do with why those who don’t believe in God know so much about him.  It’s easier to be skeptical and critical of taking something at face value when your spiritual identity doesn’t rely on belief.  When a person accepts a faith, (s)he should feel all the more pressed to examine it further, but more often than not, only the opposite happens.  Why?  Because faith is a personal decision and a personal relationship, and so it creates a subjective engagement where many times, emotions win out over reason.  Maybe if questions about atheism were included in the survey, that might even things out, but for now, I can only safely assume the people I trust most in religious debates are those who maintain an emotional distance and an intellectual proximity to the topic at hand.


Photo credit Morten Skogly via flickr


Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogersabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogersabout a year ago

Thank you for sharing.

Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis5 years ago

I'm an atheist and just took the 15 question survey on Pew's website. I got all of the questions right. Two questions were a bit obscure--thank goodness for that Comparitive Religions course in High School!

Caitlin Reed
Caitlin Herron5 years ago

This was really well written. Great post!

Mandi Conway
Mandi Conway5 years ago

This was very well written, and not that surprising. It's amazing what people don't know about their own religions, and how much education plays into it.

Carolyn B.
Carolyn R6 years ago

That's what "faith" is all about, religious think it's a special and most commendable skill to be able to believe in things which are clearly not true. People who value thought over belief, the "faithless" to religious this is bad, to a regular person it's preferred to think rather than to blindly believe.

Here charming atheist Hector Alvarez explains how biblical archeology itself debunks the bible

Carolyn B.
Carolyn R6 years ago

Some of my favorite atheists are in fact ex-preachers, people who in some cases got advanced degrees in Christian religious / bible studies. Many of the world's leading experts in the actual science of bible era archeology are also in fact, atheists. I have in the course of my studies met many people who study ancient languages - but I never personally met a Christian believer who could read "their own" ancient texts in the original language. Quite the contrary, in my experience it's quite rare to meet a believing Christian who can accurately *name* the languages of the bible, much less read them.

Atheists might know more than religious people about the bible and still be reluctant to discuss it with religious people because reading & understanding a book, it's content, it's historical and cultural context - this is what atheists generally try to do - and this is FAR removed from what religious try to do - they generally read excerpts which have been cherry-picked, translated & re-translated and freely interpreted - not with the goal of understanding but to make them palatable and useful to to preachers & making the congregation feel good.

Thinking and believing are very, very different, even opposite kids of activities. Atheists understand so they don't believe, religious seek to believe and so try NOT to understand. That's what "faith" is all about, religious think it's a special and most commendable skill to be able to believe in things which are clear

Kevin P.
Kevin P6 years ago

This article was very well written and I enjoyed it thoroughly! I am an Atheist and from the bible belt, I would definitely agree the more one has faith the less they demonstrate a want or desire to research it. This is no accident though as man made these religions mainly for the purpose of controlling the populace and this is a truly brilliant and easy way to control any people that lack critical thinking skills. Even clergy of all different religious sects can see holes and stories in their own belief that don't add up, they chose to ignore them and replace or fill in the gaps with faith.

Mike N.
Mike N6 years ago

Of course. The more you know, the less you believe because it simply gets easier to see through the facade.

Brian P.
.6 years ago

Growing up in a born-again household, I started to question church and the bible at 10 yrs of age because the stuff I was hearing at church didn't always make sense to me. I also observed that many of these church goers actually behaved in ways counter to core messages such as "do unto others..."

I figured out pretty quickly that I didn't need Christian dogma to show up as a good person and found the judgmental attitudes and hypocritical behaviors of the "devoted" rather repellent. As I got older, I realized that the bible is simply an amalgamated historical document written by men who realized the power of mythology and it's ability to exert control over an uneducated population.