Sand in the Gears

« Home »

On what we know, don’t know, and think we know

September 30th, 2010 Posted in Theology

I suspect the reality about American religious knowledge is actually better and worse than the results indicate. The internet is crackling with a minor fire about the results of a Pew survey which, as many news outlets put it, indicates that atheists know more about religion than Christians. A quick sampling of blogs enshrined to atheism confirms the predictable: this is proof that when you actually know what you’re talking about, you dispense rather rapidly with all this god business.

Of course the Pew results indicate nothing of the sort. The fact that atheists are most likely to know that Vishnu and Shiva are central to Hinduism, or that Ramadan is the month of Muslim fasting, reveals simply that atheists have more superficial knowledge of Hinduism and Islam. It doesn’t mean they’ve got a better understanding of Christianity, and therefore a stronger foundation atop which to stand in rejecting it.

Looking question by question, in fact, we find that white evangelicals are more likely to give correct answers than are atheists when it comes to the content of the Ten Commandments, and what Job and Jonathan Edwards (there’s a pair for you) are best known for. Oddly, atheists are considerably more likely to know who Martin Luther was. And thankfully, nearly sixty percent of Catholics still grasp the distinction between symbol and actuality.

To be sure, Christians who call themselves “mainline” score lower on every question, but then so do respondents who call themselves “nothing in particular,” and who probably ought to be grouped with the atheists and agnostics.

If nothing else, we can probably conclude what many of us already knew, which is that most self-styled Christians and atheists alike know not nearly enough about the core teachings of the Christian faith. Until you can elucidate the what the Nicene Creed really means, in all its outrageous propositions, you really just don’t know what you’re talking about. (And right now there’s someone mumbling that if you can’t explain, further, why the filioque is a big deal, you still don’t know what you’re talking about.)

If you’d like to take the survey yourself, click here. A lot of my friends will find, Orthodox Christians in particular, that there’s no religious category at the end to which they can match themselves. But it’s interesting nonetheless.