Contemplation: Religious Knowledge and Why the Non-Religious Seem to Have So Much

You may have already caught some of the buzz today about the results of a new Pew survey on religious knowledge in the United States.  The New York Times offers a pretty decent summary of the findings.  I will further summarize it for anyone who doesn’t want to take the time to get through the whole article.  It goes something like this.  For a population that is considered quite religious, Americans are, as a whole, not very knowledgable about religion.  And here is the real kicker about the survey result.  Of all the people in the sample size, those who were atheist or agnostic scored highest with religious knowledge.

Go ahead, take a second and let that think in. 

According the this Pew survey, non-religious Americans are more knowledgable, as a whole, than any religious practitioners (though, to be fair, both Jews and Mormons scored quite well too).  Upon reading these survey results  I had a number of initial reactions.  First I just laughed aloud at the apparent irony of the whole thing.  Then I felt a bit of frustration (boarding on anger) about the hypocrisy that this suggests.  Finally I kind of shrugged and thought, “wait a minute, this doesn’t surprise me at all.”

Let me point out part of why I am not all that surprised.  I took a brief quiz from the NYTimes article and from Pew forum, both asking a number of the similar questions to the survey, and I answered 100% correctly on both of them.  I am a pretty firm non-theist and have been such for almost a decade now.  Think about this if you’d like.  I do not believe or practice any religion, and yet I am far more knowledgable about religion than the average American, including, you got it, self claiming religious Americans.  You know what, I don’t give a fuck if I come off sounding like an elitist right now.  What this tells me is  a few simple things.  1). I may not be an average American (which might be accurate). 2). Until people can demonstrate that they have a healthy knowledge about religion, especially their own religion, I don’t want to hear them telling me anything about it, because if they don’t have the knowledge then they are merely a talking head blabbing ignorantly about something they don’t even understand.

Okay, now that I have offered my little bit of a rant and vent, I’d actually like to talk about these findings in a bit of a more serious note.  Why is it that the Atheists and Agnostics, on average,  do so much better on this survey than religious individuals?  There could obviously be a number of explanations, including education, social background, and such, but actually, as the New York Times article points out, even with these considerations the results tended to be the same.  Honestly I think that Dave Silverman, an atheist, in the NYTimes article, says it best “I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

It might seem strange, but I think that it is really accurate, and here is why.  The more knowledge that one is exposed to in regards to religion, the more that they are apt to notice inconsistencies and discrepancies.  Considering that most religions claim to provide answers to many of the big questions about ethics, existence, creation, etc. these inconsistencies and discrepancies can be problematic and lead to further questioning of legitimacy.  Consider the Abrahamic religions (those are Jewish, Christian, and Islam) claim to the “One True God.”  Fine and good if you only know about that particular belief.  In fact it is pretty easy then, “Okay, I’ve got this down, believe in this one true God.  Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy!”  But then throw in some knowledge about say Hinduism or Buddhism and how a whole lot of folks believe in not just one god but many, or, in the Buddhist case, not really a discernible god at all.  I am not saying that you can’t pick a religious belief with this knowledge, but the reality that there are millions and millions of people who don’t hold the same belief in the “One True God” is certainly apt to make you ask some questions.  And here is the thing, you can even just stay within a single religious belief and find places that seem inconsistent.  The more you know the more apt you are to have questions, or find pitfalls in claims.

Regardless of what people claim, functional religion relies heavily upon people not asking too many questions, because questions have a tendency to undermine faith and belief, especially if there are not any satisfactory answers to the questions.  A lack of knowledge of another religion by an observer of one kind, is really not all that surprising, because that knowledge of the other would more than likely be potentially detrimental to the observer’s main belief.  But if this is the case why do atheist and agnostics still know so much?  It is because, people often mistake atheism of agnosticism as a kinds of religious beliefs themselves.  This is wrong however,  atheism and agnosticism are not actually religious beliefs, but the lack there of.

While both atheism and agnosticism must be discussed in context with religion, the basic fact that they reject  religious belief means that exposure to all the various bits of different religions does not have the same potentially contradictory value (it may, but I think it is far less likely) than say being exposed to a whole different religion that challenges one central belief.  If I do not believe in god(s) it is quite easy for me to dismiss any religious text that talks about god(s), and place the burden of proof upon them (basically, that they are making the claim and have to prove it to me).  However if I believe in “this god” and am then exposed to “that god” I am faced with more of a conundrum.  I already affirm a belief in “a god” but now it is a question of which god is the “right” god; “this god” or “that god?”  It is the same with other conflicting beliefs in religion.  I think that what tends to happen is that people who really pay attention to these conflicts, discrepancies, inconsistencies, and the like, are faced with a kind of cognitive dissonance forcing them to decide either one thing is obviously very right, or they might all be quite wrong.  At this point, I think it is much easier for a person to conclude the “they might all be quite wrong” because a person who is really demonstrating cognitive examination at claims, does not want to have to “give up” knowledge to accept another bit of knowledge.  At this point you’ve got somebody heading down the road of agnosticism (and I do believe that agnosticism almost always precedes atheism, in a progression away from religious belief).

I am not trying to say that I think that all people who are religious are not knowledgable (I have known some very knowledgable religious people in my life), but that, instead, the very nature of religious beliefs, undermines certain strives toward broader more holistic knowledge.  Too much knowledge is ultimately detrimental to a strong religious belief.  Consider the history of religious as a whole.  Often it was the priestly class in any society who held the most “knowledge” and as such were able to develop and spread religious beliefs.  Others, who became too knowledgable became problematic toward the central belief system.  This is no better demonstrated by the biblical Jesus Christ himself.  He gained the enmity of the Pharisees because his religious knowledge and beliefs was a direct challenge to the tenants that they promoted.  Religion relies heavily on control of knowledge to steer belief in the “right” direction.

I further, do not mean this in the sense that religion, as a knowledge driver, is a “bad” thing, but I do think that it needs to be pointed out.  A lack of knowledge about the basics of both religion as a whole, and how knowledge is moved about in human society, is important to being able to discuss greater ideas about how the world works and how people maintain their own beliefs. At their core, religions are beliefs to create, maintain, and spread certain knowledge types.  If you cannot even admit this then I challenge anyones legitimacy to discuss religious matters further.

While I affirm to being non-theist and hold no personal religious beliefs of my own, I do not really want to come across as begrudging religions as a whole. I have seen good come from religion, just as I have seen bad.  I have known terribly kind and wonderful people who are deeply religious, but I have also known religious people who are real shit heads and hypocrites.  In my experience, there are all types, everywhere, whether religious or not, and this fact is not a reason alone, to judge the merits, or lack there of, of any belief system.  However, a lack of knowledge of ones own belief system, strikes me as terribly hypocritical, and seems to me to undermine any claims made by that individual.  Further, a lack of knowledge of other belief systems means that people should proceed with caution when making judgement calls about others beliefs, because they may be judging in ignorance (which in my book is a real crime).  I believe, strongly, that everybody has a right to their own ideas and beliefs (be they religious or not) but that people should not fling around ignorance carelessly.  Ignorance has a great potential to cause harm, and if we cannot ask ourselves, honestly, “do I know enough about this to really make a judgement?” we are apt to act recklessly, and may ultimately come out as a hypocrite in light of our own beliefs.

By the way, as an aside . . .

A little bit on why I think I am actually quite well versed in religious knowledge (and thus maybe outside the statistic of “Average American” in this regards).  I was baptised in a protestant church as an infant, and raised with a general christian (both Protestant and Catholic) upbringing.  However, for much of my youth, I did not attend church regularly or at all, and even though my parents and I might talk about God, it was always in a rather vague and not central way.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that my parents really began to attend church regularly again, and by that point I had less of an interest.  I went anyway, attended Sunday morning bible lessons, and was even a member of the teen youth group.  Furthermore, I absorbed a ton of knowledge from sermons, the bible and what have you.  I loved knowing all of it, but not in a religious sense, but more as in a fascination of the stories and that they meant people were “supposed” to believe.  Besides the christian exposure I began actively pursuing knowledge in other religious beliefs.

In my sophomore year of high school we read big chunks of the Old Testament in my English class (at a public school, legally, as a piece of literature . . . a lot of people didn’t know this was allowed in the Pew survey). Discussing the text of the bible from a purely secular and literary perspective while also reading some greek and norse mythology caused me to further conclude that all the bible was telling was a bunch of stories, no different from the Greeks or the Romans or the Hindus or Buddhists or what have you.  I wouldn’t say I had rejected religious belief wholly at this point, but I was well on my way towards that conclusion.  When my parents and brother formally joined the new church in an affirmation of faith, I opted out.  I also began to refuse to take the sacraments during communion services.

By college I had stopped going to church altogether (except for a few occasions when home with my parents).  However, I maintained a fascination of religion from an academic perspective and took a number of classes focused specifically on religion, furthering my knowledge of the different beliefs and ideas.  Outside of class I regularly partook in discussion and debate about religion with friends and peers as well as with professors.  I also read material on my own time to further my knowledge.

Three and a half years out of college I have kept this up all the while holding to the pretty set non-theism.  I don’t go to church, I don’t believe in god(s), and probably my general ethical outlook seems bizarre and alien to much of the population of this country.  But I don’t ignore religion.  I don’t believe that any ignorance about religion on my part helps myself or others, and so I keep actively informed and interested, regardless of what I do (or better, do not) believe.

And there you have it.

~ by Nathaniel on September 28, 2010.

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