A new study recently released http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx by the Pew Research group has shown that of all the religious demographics in the United States it was atheists that knew the most of religion. Now typically we would expect to hear an overwhelming tide of smug brewing over the country, the smugness of a group that has objectively shown themselves to be superiorly informed in an area that is controversial for many. I’ll be the first to tell you, I felt pretty happy about the results and I’m sure that if you’d asked many atheists what they would predict the study to show, they’d be right on the money. However, that isn’t really what is important when we look at this study. This study actually shows something far more dangerous and unsettling that what at first seems clear.
When we look at something like religious accuracy in terms of historic figures, rules, dogma, scripture, and ideas these are very serious things to be right and wrong about. These things are what basically “are” in the religion. If we were to remove from everyone that played professional football the memory of all knowledge of the rules and set them out to play a game, they wouldn’t get very far. We’d have people cackling as the quarterback handed it off to the wide receiver who then runs back towards his own end zone. He’d have no idea what to do! But when we look at something like religion this is different, this isn’t about beating the spread or enjoying a Monday night. This is about life and death and an entire way of life for an entire social structure and all of the people within that structure. Knowing about your religion is serious!
We have entire organizations that advocate certain social policies and lobby our lawmakers for their special interests. These people do not come from nowhere and neither do their dollars; they are supported by the vast reserves of the American populace that happens to agree with them. Yet now, we see that most of the people that feel qualified in their morality to enforce it on others actually know LESS about the origins of their morality than the people they are seeking to enforce it on? How do we handle this situation? How does the religious institution keep its head held high and its eyes level on a goal when the heart doesn’t even know what it means to be a part of the body? Or more importantly, for the rest of society, how do we give these institutions continued credibility in an age where the atheists directly opposed to their viewpoints actually know more about their own religious viewpoints? The simple answer is that we should not and cannot. We should not allow the ignorant religious population of our country to claim mental sanctuary on an issue as important as their own religious beliefs, particularly when these same people wish to change the way of life for other citizens.
I for one am extremely happy that this study was released and hope to see more like it in the future. The implications for this study support the very things we have discussed here before, namely that education is paramount to the development of a person and by proxy society and that atheism is a result of that education. It sure can be said with little humor that the more individuals know of a religion the less likely they are to believe in it! Other major implications or rather indictments of religion is that religion encourages ignorance of its own dogma (don’t peek behind the curtain!), of events both current and historical, of contemporary law and policy, and of the beliefs of other religions. All of which this study shows most religious denominations to be guilty of.
Now, to be fair we must read further into the study and we can see that of all groups it was the evangelical branches of religious groups that scored best on their particular religion and that atheists along with Jews performed best on all religions as a whole, and not too far behind the evangelicals themself. This too raises even more questions though. If only those that are most fundamental in their beliefs actually know of their religion, then why are atheists so marginalized? Why do so many people that have so little knowledge of their faith then purport to have their faith? Why were the older (and typically more vocal) religious people less likely to know about their religion after a long life of religiosity?
These are all questions that can hopefully be answered by more studies and more publicity to these phenomena in our country. We are the most religious industrialized country in the world, and yet the smallest groups (population wise) know the most about this religiosity-and about half of this group doesn’t believe at all! This is a serious issue for religion in the United States and I hope we can lay bare these shortcomings of the irrational majority (or are they really?) in our country.