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

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.


  1. Tim Andrews

    As one of those Orthodox readers of yours, I am indeed annoyed I can not match myself! In anycase, 14/15 (not being American, I forgive myself for not knowing about the Great Awakening πŸ™‚ )

    On that matter though, I once wrote a short quiz on my personal blog asking questions directly sourced from the Nicene Creed (http://tiny.cc/tmvsx).
    About 100 people describing themselves as Christians took it. Only 4 got all the questions correct.

  2. Tim Andrews

    (Just for amusement’s sake, so far 4 readers of your blog – all of whom selected they attended Church weekly – clicked through to do the test. Of them, only one did not fall into heresy. Which is still far better than the general populations! πŸ™‚ )

  3. Post

    I knew a bunch of heretics read this blog. And one may be writing it, because I just took the test too. I always get tripped up on the one or two natures thing.

  4. Tim Andrews

    You have succumbed to not one, not two, but no less than _three_ heresies!

    ” Mary, the mother of Jesus gave birth to the incarnate Christ, but not to the divine “Logos” who existed before Mary and indeed before time itself” NO! Nestorianism! You can not split the human from the Divine!

    ” Christ has only one nature, his humanity being absorbed by his Deity” – NO! Monophysitism! Whilst Christ is a single undivided person, he still has two natures – human and Divine

    “Jesus Christ, who is identical with the Son, is one person and one hypostas (being) in one nature: divine-human.”
    No! Monophysitism! Wrong for pretty much the same answer as above…

    “Jesus had two natures, but only one will (Divine)” NO! If Christ has two natures, then He must have two wills, else it impairs the fullness of Christ’s humanity, since human nature without a human will would be incomplete: Since Christ is true man as well as true God, He must have a human as well as divine will!

    Tsk, tsk!
    (Fuller explanation, together with why this matters/is important (according to me at least) at http://insidethemindoftim.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/christian-or-heretic-the-results/).

    Heretic. :p

  5. Bill M

    Ok, I’m a newly converted Catholic who grew up Episcopalian. I don’t pretend to know much about religion and especially the Catholic faith. I didn’t pay much attention in Sunday school on the occassions that we did attend. That said, I scored 15 out of 15. Too bad they didn’t call me!!

  6. Marc V

    Chalk me up to the imperfect 15 too. I was not sure about the Supreme Court rulings, as who knows what they’ll interpret (freedom of or from religion? πŸ™‚ ), as well as the nirvana thing. I wonder how many people would put Seattle as an answer if it was a choice?

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