In Theory: On this test, atheists and agnostics set curve

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life just published the results of a survey on religious knowledge in America. On average Americans correctly answered 16 out of the survey's 32 questions about core religious teachings, and the history and major figures of the world's major religions. The survey found that atheists and agnostics on average had the highest number of correct responses, 20.9 out of 32 questions, followed closely by Jews and Mormons, who averaged 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers. However, Protestants as a whole and Catholics as a whole averaged 16 correct answers and 14.7 correct answers, respectively. As a religious/spiritual leader or commentator in the community, what is your reaction to this and how do you explain that atheists and agnostics performed the best on this survey?

The reason atheists have the higher scores is that they did their due diligence. Atheism is a very individualistic discovery. One does not turn away from their childhood indoctrination easily. There is no "born-again" atheism or "church of atheism." As one studies their religion rooted in the bronze-age era, one sees the contradictions and sometimes barbaric ideologies of that religion.

"Why were so many people killed by a loving god," one might ask.

I will boldly assume that it is easier to believe in the supernatural as long as one doesn't question it. The "slippery slope" starts with questions and turns into inadequate explanations of a belief system. Some apostates know had a very tumultuous time leaving their faith. The ex-Mormons of my local discussion group,, have the courage to "come out" even though they know their friends and families will ostracize them and even divorce them.

Once one turns to atheism, it's easy to see why we know more about it — we have to know more if we are to leave in institution of supernatural superstitions.

Bruce Gleason

Director, Freethought Alliance 

The survey showed a clear relationship between educational attainment and religious knowledge. The more education respondents had, the better they did answering general knowledge questions and the higher they scored on questions which were specifically about religion. Jews and Mormons were just fractions behind atheists/agnostics. What values, traditions, conditions and other factors contribute to educational attainment?

It was disheartening to learn that the majority of Americans (74%) believe that comparative religion courses (which "teach" rather than "preach") cannot be offered in public schools. This may explain why fewer than half of the respondents knew that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation or the Four Gospels are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Solid education about religion, as a valid academic subject, is imperative in our world today for all students, whether Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, atheist or anything else.

The Rev. Deborah Barrett

Zen Center of Orange County

Costa Mesa

The survey was not concerning "Bible Knowledge" but "Religious Knowledge" and included questions that Christians would give very little attention to such as "what century was the Mormon religion founded?" "What religion is the Dalai Lama?" etc.

Another factor that should be considered is that the survey showed that respondents who attended church weekly and who placed high value on religion in their lives had higher scores. I think there were many surveyed who called themselves "Catholic or Protestant" but in reality had virtually no Bible knowledge.

That being said, I think it also reveals just how little the average professing Christian knows about the Bible and the blame for that can be laid at the feet of pastors who are more concerned with the entertainment than edification of the saints. We are living in what the Bible calls "the last days," when people will flock to hear false teachers that will tickle their ears with feel good messages designed to entertain but not instruct in the path of godliness. What we need in our churches is a return to the clear teaching and preaching of God's Holy Word, the Bible!

Pastor Dwight Tomlinson

Liberty Baptist Church

Newport Beach

I am shocked. I am astounded. Not!

Americans as a culture do not care for history. We are present and future oriented. Solve the problem, and move on. What are we doing next? Why would anyone expect church folk to be any different? But there is something else going on.

The Pew Forum did not ask questions about faith; they asked information and historical questions to get shocking headlines. But faith is not information about God or church but a dynamic relationship with God. The quality of faith is not determined by the quantity of knowledge. Knowledge can expand, enrich, and deepen our faith, but faith itself is from the heart not the head.

I think the Pew Forum would have very different results if they had asked questions about faith not theology: Have you felt the presence of God in your life? Do you know who the saints are in your church? Do you know who to call for prayers? Have you ever had a goose bump moment during a sermon or church service or while taking communion? Has Jesus changed you? Have you felt nudged in church to join a cause or care for stranger? Have you ever been moved to forgive someone who has no right to ever be forgiven? Have you ever read a Bible story and felt it was written just for you?

Faith gives us a history of God in our life. This is the real story. This is the true religious knowledge.

Pastor Mark Wiley

Mesa Verde Community Church

Costa Mesa

No matter what faith one practices (or not), the scores show lack of knowledge and awareness across the board. As religious leaders, we have much work to do. We have to create an interest so that others will want to know more about their own faith and the faith of others.

I would be curious to see the results of such a survey if it were administered to people in other countries. Our focus may not be broad enough here in the United States. This survey is worthy of further study; but more importantly, it should be a wake up call to everyone. We have technology like we've never had before (the Internet, especially) but this seems to have little positive effect on what we know.

May I suggest turning off our televisions (or at least reducing our intake of TV programming)? We can read and learn with that extra time.

Fr. Stephen Doktorczyk

St. Joachim Church

Costa Mesa

We have some teaching and learning to do! Those of us in faith communities must eagerly and enthusiastically share information about our heritage and motivations for our practices. And, parents and schools must teach science, math, literature and history better and better. This same Pew Forum survey asked general knowledge questions for comparison purposes; groups which did best on the religious awareness questions did likewise on these, but no group had a passing grade (48% to 66%) in either area.

Occasionally there are person-on-the-street interviews in the media and I am consistently astonished to learn how many fellow citizens think that there are 12 mandates in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), that Madonna is the title character in "Jesus Christ Superstar" and/or that the American War of Independence was fought in the 20th century.

Let's encourage intellectual curiosity leading to careful and well-informed decision-making.

(The Very Rev'd Canon) Peter D. Haynes

Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church

Corona del Mar

There is an immense difference between knowing about something and personally experiencing it. A superficial knowledge (Jesus was born in Bethlehem) does not indicate one's religiosity. It is possible that atheists and agnostics are called upon to defend their positions on religion and therefore are compelled to know something about the subject they either reject (atheists) or have considered with skepticism (agnostics). Mormons and Jews, both minorities and historically persecuted, perhaps have learned about other religions for similar reasons. Children and youth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) go through a comprehensive study of their faith through their entire lives, and many serve on missions which provide experiences with faiths other than their own.

Tom Thorkelson

Director of Interfaith Relations

Orange County Council

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

It makes sense to me. Quite often the dominating group in any culture tends not to know as much about the minority groups. So, it doesn't surprise me that Christians scored lower than other religions. Furthermore, atheists and agnostics have to know what they don't believe in, or are uncertain about, in order to not believe in it, so it stands to reason that they would score better. It's a shame that we know so little about each other's faiths. I took the questionnaire online and have decided to give it during one of our adult education classes so we, at Fairview, can be more intentional about learning the world's religions. My academic study of religion as well as the interfaith work I do have both led to my belief that we people of faith have more in common than different. My spiritual life is enriched as I incorporate aspects of the world's religions into my own practice. I hope this study will urge us all to learn more about religions different than our own.

The Rev. Sarah Halverson

Fairview Community Church

Costa Mesa

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