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Atheists Know More About Religion Than the Pious

Posted on Sep 28, 2010
James Jacques Joseph Tissot

Well, this is awkward. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life undertook a study in which nonbelievers correctly answered more religious knowledge questions than the devout. Mormons and Jews also scored well and, like atheists, know more about Christianity than Christians.

Here are some of Pew’s surprising findings:

More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.

In addition, fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) correctly associate Vishnu and Shiva with Hinduism. And only about a quarter of all Americans (27%) correctly answer that most people in Indonesia—the country with the world’s largest Muslim population—are Muslims.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 28, 2010 at 12:12 pm Link to this comment


There’s no doubt that religion has been used by opportunists in this country to control those who do not know any better.

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By gerard, September 28, 2010 at 11:59 am Link to this comment

Excuse me, all you poll cats, but the skunk in me has to ask some questions here:
  1. What happened to the category “agnostic”? Yeah, I know.  It doesn’t “poll” very well. Too vague.
  2. The survey was on “Religion and Public Life.” Where are the “public life” related statistics? What were these questions? Why are they not included?
  3. Was anybody curious enough to ask any “why” questions, or “how much”, or “if”?
  As usual with polls, the most revealing questions were not asked—probably because they are harder to quantify, can’t be expressed with numbers. Yet these are the questions that, ironically, “count” most when it comes to life and death. Answers to such questions are also the only significant ones when it comes to making public policy—one ostensible reason justifying polls.
  Example: Typical Poll Question—Who is believed to be the founder of Islam?  Answer: Mohammed
    Non-poll Question—Why do you think American Muslims should/should not build a community center near Ground Zero?  If “don’t know” state reasons for equivocation.
  Admittedly, this latter type of question causes self-inquiry, asking people to think about their own opinions before answering. If they are never asked, the chances are they will never question themselves.
So, ironically, polls are not about asking people to think—only to react.
  No, no, Impossible! Keep it simple, for God’s sake!
  Remember when you were a kid in Sunday School, how good it felt when they sang:
  “Yes, Jesus loves me!  Yes, Jesus loves me!
  Yes, Jesus loves me!  The Bible tells me so!”

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By Maani, September 28, 2010 at 11:13 am Link to this comment

Knute, Felicity, Doughboy:

Good comments.  There is truth in all of them.

As a Protestant minister, I would suggest that, as others have said, this is not news.  In my opinion, it is the result of (i) believers who let their leaders read and interpret their Scriptures for them, and thus do not actually learn much actual detail, and (ii) as doughboy notes, an America that is, by and large, basically ignorant of so much.  For believers, the fault here lies in simply abandoning all rationalism and empiricism in the name of faith - something that is simply wrong.  for non-believers, the fault lies in an educational system that is woefully inadequate.

I also want to commend Alfred LaMotte on his comment, as it is equally valid and important.

Finally, I want to comment on two comments by Knute.

“We call ourselves a ‘christian’ nation, yet we wage war, premeditated war with a gun one hand and a bible in the other. Hypocracy is the central theme in todays so called ‘christian community.’”

I reject the notion that we are a “Christian” nation in the first place.  The “founding fathers” were mostly deists and theists, not Christians.  However, given the fact that many (most?) Americans DO think of us as a “Christian” nation, Knute’s comment is spot on.

He also says, “Seeing all the death over the centuries in the name of organized religion is a testament to how it has kept civilization from progressing beyond wars.”

This is not exactly a completely fair comment.  As I have noted elsewhere, the highest estimates of the number of people killed in religious/holy wars, crusades, inquisitions, progroms, witch burnings, etc. is ~50-75,000,000 - in all of recorded history.  However, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and Pol Pot - committed atheists all (and let’s not get into the “Hitler was a Christian” debate; he was a pagan and simply “used” Christianity to further his ends) - murdered or otherwise caused the deaths of over 150,000,000 - in just 60 years!  So before we “cast the first stone,” let’s make sure we are not without sin ourselves.


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By samosamo, September 28, 2010 at 11:08 am Link to this comment


Either you are gnostic and psycho, OR agnostic
and haven’t time for the tenets of BS, OR you’re
atheist and don’t let the trivial bother you.

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By Mark A. Goldman, September 28, 2010 at 10:05 am Link to this comment

Maybe God is Not the Fool You Think He Is

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By expat in germany, September 28, 2010 at 9:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Atheists are smarter. There, I said it. Now you can all give me the thumbs down. Oh, wait, that’s Yahoo…

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doughboy's avatar

By doughboy, September 28, 2010 at 9:18 am Link to this comment

Americans are recognized for being ignorant of world history, world cultures,
science, and even our past (slavery, American Indians, Constitution, Bill of Rights,
etc), but it had been thought that the “religious right” knew their stuff about the
only topic they broadcast.  From terrorism to immigration to liberal issues to
Muslim hating, God was always part of the argument.  Now it is demonstrated that
Americans are oblivious rather than knowledgeable, and are better at bigotry than
tolerance.  We plaster bumper stickers of “United We Stand” but we really do not
like our neighbor—mostly anyone of color, sexual preference,  or not the
accepted religious beliefs.  We do best in wars and worse in taking care of “the
least among us”—not much money to be made in helping others, but a lot of
money to be made killing everyone else.  Marx was correct when he referred to
religion as an opiate—Americans are good and stoned.

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By felicity, September 28, 2010 at 9:17 am Link to this comment

This interesting phenomenon may stem from the fact
that Americans ‘go at’ religion, use religion, use
the bible to verify/make true/legitimize a
particular pre-conceived belief. Biblical scholars
we’re not.  Religious scholars, we’re not. 

For instance, it’s perfectly alright to ‘lie’ with
ones daughter because Abraham did.  (Obviously - or
maybe not? - I made that up, but the point is we
merely use the bible, which we take as the final and
only true and right thing going to justify, in this
case, an act.  Needless to say, this skewed approach
to religion makes for some pretty horrific real-life

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By Aaron Ortiz, September 28, 2010 at 9:02 am Link to this comment

The problem with religious statistics of Christianity, is that the majority are merely nominal Christians, who go to church (or not) but have little or no faith: it is all tradition. With the older branches of Christianity, this is more prevalent.

This is a result of government establishing a national religion, from Rome, to Spain to England, all across Europe. Far from helping Christianity, it brought millions of unbelievers and baptized them, making them instant pagan Christians.

Any religion based on tradition rather than faith does not require much thinking on the part of its members. Of course, the more devoted DO learn their theology.

I would have thought an even larger percentage of Christians don’t even know what they’re supposed to believe than those reported in this article.

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By NYCartist, September 28, 2010 at 8:08 am Link to this comment

We have to know. Atheist Jew. No surprise.

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By knute, September 28, 2010 at 6:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is not earth shaking news. It stands to reason that most atheists know more about religion then your average church goer. It is specifically for that reason they are atheists in the first place. They are the individuals who rather then follow along, had for whatever reason the capacity to think for themselves. Seeing all the death over the centuries in the name of organized religion is a testament to how it has kept civilization from progressing beyond wars. We call ourselves a “christian” nation, yet we wage war, premeditated war with a gun one hand and a bible in the other. Hypocracy is the central theme in todays so called “christian community”. Where was there voice while Bush started his wars ? For that matter where is their voice in standing up for the poor in our own country ? It all flys in the face of the most basic tenants the man they worship taught 2000 years ago. I believe if he were here today, he’d be the loudest voice against the hypocracy a religion that hijacked his name a millenium ago.

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By tomack, September 28, 2010 at 6:41 am Link to this comment

There is no he/she/it/them, there is only fact and truth. And the facts at hand don’t support “their” truth. 

I’ll bet had the tests been administered in just the Red states the correct responses would have been even worse.

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Rigor's avatar

By Rigor, September 28, 2010 at 6:08 am Link to this comment

The most surprising FACT is that the worlds deadliest,
and longest running, argument, (Islam vs Judeo-
Christian [or vice-versa] beliefs) have the exact same
origin - they literally pray to the very same God, and
I wonder how he/she/it/them feel about this particular
On the face of it any of these religions would bring
peace & brotherhood to the world if they were adhered
to, but sooner or later the power-trip kicks in and the
true god of man -Greed- perverts any notion of

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By Alfred LaMotte, September 28, 2010 at 6:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is all about data and has nothing to do with religious experience. There are tribal people who know nothing about any world religions, but have profound religious experience. Once again, the Western intellectual confuses book knowledge ABOUT other peoples’ religions with religious EXPERIENCE.

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CJ's avatar

By CJ, September 28, 2010 at 5:02 am Link to this comment

As an atheist, I knew this already. (Because I know some Christians.)

I also know that reds of various stripe know more about capitalism than do most capitalists.

Same thing.

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By GPaul, September 28, 2010 at 4:57 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Amen, brother.

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By Scott, September 28, 2010 at 3:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

um… actually the scores of the Atheists, Agnostics,
Jews and Mormons who took the survey were all within
the margin of error, so you could say that
statistically speaking Atheists and Agnostics know
about as much about religion as Mormons and Jews do. 

Gonna go out on a limb here, but considering that
Mormons in the survey indicated that they were the
most devout by far (i.e. how much they said they read
about their religion each week) maybe we could say
that the most religious and the least religious are
the ones who end up knowing the most about religion,
perhaps because they are the ones who have studied it
out, thought about it deeply and come to some sort of
conclusion - either “all in” or “all out”.  Indeed
the survey shows that those with a higher level of
commitment to their religion scored higher on the

Now, those in the middle who are kind of luke-warm or
go through the motions because it’s what their
parents did won’t know as much for obvious reasons. I
personally know a lot of Catholics and mainline
Protestants who fall in this category.  Mormonism and
Atheism aren’t really positions in which you can sit
on the fence.

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Fat Freddy's avatar

By Fat Freddy, September 28, 2010 at 3:15 am Link to this comment

Know thine enemy.

There’s only one thing that people need to know about religion. It is one of three means of controlling the masses. The other two being politics and economics.

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