Based on a Pew Forum telephone survey of more than 3,400 people, a popular article in today’s New York Times tells us that self-identified atheists and agnostics are less ignorant of religion than Christians of all persuasions (Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and mainline, white, black, and hispanic). Out of 32 general questions about different religions, the atheist/agnostic group averaged about 21 correct answers. The nearest Christian group (“white evangelical Protestants”) only about 18. (Jews and Mormons, however, were very close behind the nonbelievers.)
Let me fight back my strong initial response to this survey (“Who cares?”) long enough to take it seriously. No religious authority of any stripe was quoted in the article, only a representative for an atheist advocacy group called American Atheists, Dave Silverman.
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
This is nonsense on so many levels. First, I’ll bet that a large number of Christians, Jews, and Mormons own Bibles, and have read at least some scripture (more than your typical nonbeliever). Given that believers greatly outnumber nonbelievers in our population, the burden of proof is on Mr. Silverman to show how owning or reading a Bible “makes” atheists. In terms of sheer correlation, one might reach the exact opposite conclusion. I received a Bible at ages 6 and 14, and I became a Methodist minister. In fact, all the clergy I know were given Bibles at some point in their lives. Hmmm…
Second, I’m sure that self-identified nonbelievers are relatively well-educated compared to the general population (the vast majority of whom, remember, are believers). This is hardly an indictment against believers (although it may be an indictment against our educational system)—because there are still many more well-educated believers than non-believers. It’s meaningless to compare the relative knowledge of any small, well-educated group to something like 90 percent of the population. Why not, for example, compare “white mainline Protestants” with a graduate degree to “atheist/agnostics” with a graduate degree?
What Mr. Silverman wants to say, of course, is, “See, we really smart people know better than to believe in God.” Please!
Third, atheism often stems from a lack of knowledge—the knowledge that comes from actually practicing a religion. In other words, many people who practice a religion know something about that religion that an outsider like Mr. Silverman cannot know, certainly not from reading a textbook, reading a newspaper, taking a freshman philosophy course—or even reading the Bible as a disinterested outsider. When it comes to religion, oftentimes believing is seeing.
Finally, since atheists and agnostics make unprovable metaphysical claims about reality, they are every bit as “religious” as those of us who believe in a reality that transcends time and space. Mr. Silverman doesn’t get off the hook for being religious. He’s a person of great faith, just like the rest of us.