Okay, so it’s hard not to crow in ironic delight about this one: turns out atheists and agnostics score higher than religious Americans on a test of religious knowledge. Howzat for un-believable!
A new survey released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that one of the most deeply religious countries in the world — the US — is abysmally ignorant when it comes to the most basic facts of religious belief and observance (though I suspect that the survey could have been about anything — geography, history, politics — and the results would have been equally abysmal).
Before you start in with the crowing, however, consider this: Even atheists and agnostics averaged only 67% correct answers. Yup — a basic test of 32 pretty basic multiple-choice questions, and they got only two thirds of them right.
How basic? Well, is Ramadan part of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam? Or does the Jewish sabbath begin on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday? Or what are the names of the four Gospels?
You can take an abbreviated fifteen-question quiz here (it’s slow, as though it assumes you need time to say a quick prayer before selecting an answer) and read the summary of the Pew report here. But to get the full impact of the depth of ignorance, if you can stand it, scroll though Appendix B (a pdf file whose link is at the end of the next-to-last paragraph here). Make a quick stop at question 34b — have human beings existed in their present form since the beginning of time, or have they evolved over time? — and note that 40% chose “present form since the beginning of time.”
As Percy Bysshe Shelley put it, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Of course the survey was skewed by the choice of possibilities in the answers. The question “Where was Jesus born?” gave only four options: Bethelehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, and Jericho (yes, all four got votes) — a limited range of options displaying a distinct lack of imagination.
Imagine if the Pew researchers had given a few other possible answers to where Jesus was born: Rome, Eden, Damascus, or Constantinople, for instance (oh hell, let’s add in Heaven for good measure). Or if they’d gone political and asked for a choice between Israel, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran. I’m willing to bet that every one of those options would have received plenty of votes too.
You have to kind of admire Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, for keeping his crowing volume in check. Asked for a response to the survey, he replied succintly: “Atheism is an effect of knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
That’s quite a brilliant concept: reading the Bible as an atheist conversion tool. What if all those people so piously quoting phrases and snippets from holy books actually sat down to read them in their entirety? You think the Quran advocates violence, for instance? Read Deuteronomy, and the Quran morphs into a pussycat by comparison.
Books are dangerous things, as fundamentalists recognize. And none more dangerous than holy books. Who knows what’d happen if people were to start reading them instead of misquoting them? Maybe we should start burning Bibles too.
We’re so religious because we’re so ignorant. Widespread faith can never be based in principle.