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A View from the Back Pew

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Top Score: Atheists

by Tim O'Donnell | October 3rd, 2010

I may not agree with the conclusion an atheist draws about God, but at least he has asked enough questions to draw a conclusion.

From A View from the Back Pew; a soon to be released, destined to be a classic, outstanding read which I’m sure you and all of your friends will soon have on your bookshelf.  (Quit snickering, one can dream.)

The larger point I’m making both here and in the book is that I respect the way many atheists arrive at their belief about the existence of God.  I do not agree with the conclusion of the atheist but most I’ve encountered have come to their interpretation in an intellectually honest way.  They asked the questions.  They arrived at their conclusion using the gift of their own mind, relying on the power of reason.  I get that.  I respect that.

Whereas I’m increasingly dubious about organized religion myself, I’ve concluded something very different than the atheist about the existence of the entity we’ve been trained to call God.

Knowing religion is not the same as knowing God.

Now along comes a Pew Forum Survey on religious knowledge that further reinforces one of my hunches about atheists – that they, as a group, know more about religion than the average, God-fearing American.

Wait! What?

That’s right – the survey reveals that atheists scored the highest marks on the just released Religious Knowledge Survey.

The Pew Forum asked more than 3,000 Americans 32 questions about religion.  The range of questions were: religious history, teachings of major religions, religious leaders, scriptures, global geography of religion and the role of religion in American public life.  It was not exactly a trivia contest, nor were the questions focused on what Pew may have deemed the most “essential” tenets of one religion or another.  According to Pew, “the questions included in the survey were intended to be representative of a body of important knowledge about religion; they were not meant to be a list of the most essential facts.”

On the whole, Americans averaged 16 correct answers of the 32 questions to form a perfect bell curve.  Among the more interesting findings:

Atheists and Agnostics scored the highest, averaging about 21 correct answers, Jews were next at 20.5 correct; white Evangelicals got about 17.5, white Catholics came in at the exact national average of 16, black Protestants came in a 13.4 and Hispanic Catholics at 11.6.

Almost nine out of ten knew that a teacher could not lead a prayer in a public school classroom but most did not know (77%) that a teacher could read from the Bible as an example of literature.  Most know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (71%); Moses was the figure that led the exodus from Egypt (72%) and that most people in Pakistan are Muslim (68%).

About half (55%) knew that The Golden Rule (Do unto others…) was not one of the Ten Commandments; could name the four gospels (45%) or that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday (45%).

Almost half of all Catholics (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually becomes the body and blood of Christ and is not merely a symbolized ritual. More than half of all Protestants (53%) do not know that Martin Luther was responsible for the Reformation that originally made the first break in the Christian religion. Only 16% know that Protestants traditionally teach that salvation comes through faith alone.

To dig more into the survey findings you may do by clicking here.

There are numerous ways in which to interpret this data of course but education impacts the survey the most; the higher the level of education the better the score.  Nevertheless, the most intriguing and poignant revelation is that atheists, people who have determined that God does not exist, displayed the highest degree of religious knowledge over all other survey groups that just happen to be “believers”.

How can this be?

First off and notably, many atheists are well educated.  In my experience, many began their trek toward atheism by questioning the tenets of the religion they were born into and found it lacking in some fundamental way.  Seems obvious enough, if they found the religion of their birth to satisfy their intellectual scrutiny, there’d be no need to part ways.  That’s not shocking, but why does religion fail the test of reasonableness in the atheists mind in the first place?

The world’s main religions find their roots in antiquity.  The people who first articulated these wisdoms spoke to followers in a contemporaneous way, that is, they spoke in the manner and custom of the culture they were speaking to.  They communicated their ideas within the boundary of human capacity at that time.  In fact, the original depositors of faith (Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, etc.) were articulating at the frontier of human thinking about the most difficult concept for humans to put into words – the very essence of the intelligence that organized the universe – the essence that religion teaches us to call God (or Yahweh, Allah, Father, Spirit, etc.).

When the religions that dominate the world today were first articulated, human beings believed the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth and that women were a defective form of the human male; before we discovered gravity, electricity or the molecular nature of matter; and well before we invented the printing press, the telephone or the automobile.

So, for the educated and inquiring mind of today to conclude that religion is “superstitious” or a “fairy tale” should not jolt or insult anyone. The capacity of the human mind to comprehend has advanced many times over since most religious deposits were made into human consciousness, yet the deposits are to be considered incontrovertible “fact”, that any expansion of the deposits is unnecessary and even somehow “blasphemous”, “heretical” or “sacrilegious”.

As our comprehension of the physical world vis-à-vis science expanded exponentially throughout centuries, our static articulations of the metaphysical world came to be viewed as quaint to the point they’ve ceased to satisfy the modern mind that has embraced scientific knowledge as the only credible portrayal of reality.

To many in the modern world, religion has crossed the line from “quaint” to being anachronistic.   Really, who can blame the atheist for rejecting ancient text as a guide to spiritual understanding?  We should have been advancing our spiritual understanding right along with our advancement in understanding of the natural world.  The fact that religion in the generic sense passes itself off as the last word, that it is irrefutable is why many reject it. Why does our knowledge in nearly every discipline of thought except the spiritual, continually increase as we continue to expand our ability to understand?

However, just because our understanding of the physical has vastly outpaced our articulation of the metaphysical does not necessarily render the metaphysical realm non-existent.

My aforementioned “hunch” about atheism is that religion itself creates more atheists than scientific knowledge does.  My hunch is supported by the results of this poll.  The people in our society who have concluded that God does not exist, by-and-large are the ones who have actually taken the time, put in the effort and used their brain to query religion and because it is laden with ancient metaphor and allegory, which they call “fairy tale”, conclude God must not exist.

To me it is a faulty conclusion.  Just because mankind stymied any advancement of the articulations about God by making the various religious belief systems the last word about the metaphysical does not mean God (just a word) does not exist.

But at least the atheist does not sit lethargically in a pew and believe “just because” they were told to believe. That’s why I’m not in the least bit surprised that this most recent Pew Forum Survey reveals atheists as being more knowledgeable about religion than all other denomination of “believer”.   The atheist has activated his mind on this topic while many (not all) “believers” inertly accept a pre-packaged set of beliefs and rituals without any thinking on the matter whatsoever.

I’ll say it again –  “I may not agree with the conclusion an atheist draws about God, but at least he has asked enough questions to draw a conclusion.

If you’d like to test your knowledge of religion you can take shortened version of the survey here.  Let me know how you score.

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