Belief In Nothing

Completely to the surprise of everyone except atheists and agnostics, it turns out that nonbelievers actually know more about religion than the religious. It’s almost as if nonbelievers looked at the claims of religion, investigated them, and concluded they are astonishingly unconvincing.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

This level of ignorance should be deeply embarrassing to anyone that considers themselves to be a particular religion. It seems to confirm the human bias to form tribes. The importance for most people isn’t in the content of the beliefs just their homogeneity with others in their group. This same type of ignorance I’m sure mirrors political beliefs to a certain extent. 

Looking at this survey, it is unclear whether increasing the level of religious knowledge is casual to being a nonbeliever. Policy proposals (you can start around the 4:00 mark) by atheists like Dan Dennett to increase comparative religious knowledge seem to rest somewhat on the assumption that learning about religion in a secular way amplifies skepticism. Surveys like this help that case, but don’t prove it – after all it’s not like Jews and Mormons did that much worse than atheists and agnostics. Also, given that these numbers are an average, some atheists and agnostics probably have pretty poor competency as well. Yet, I’m never really against raising knowledge as a good in itself. At the least, you’d expect people learning about other religions would be able to better empathize with other groups which could lead to less sectarianism. Dennett seems to believe the same, and remarks that informed consent is essential to democracy. He’s right about the importance of knowledge and I support his proposal despite my worries about abuse of religious curriculum.  

I’m happy this Pew Survey undermines the notion that atheists aren’t believers because they’re religious “know-nothings.” Apologists pursued the wrong target lecturing nonbelievers about their assumed ignorance – the more troubling problem is theists willing to believe while being ignorant of those very beliefs or of alternative doctrines. In Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “It was the schoolboy who said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Bertrand Russell wrote, “We may define “faith” as a firm belief in something for which there is no evidence.” Both were wrong. Faith seems to be worse, it allows one to accept dogma without even awareness. Faith isn’t blind, it’s mindless. After all, if someone doesn’t know about something you’d expect them to not believe in it. But the unconscious credulity of the faithful is consequential and common. “Belief in nothing” is no longer a slur appropriate for atheists. It’s the definition of faith.

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  1. Pat
    September 28, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    This makes perfect sense Dan. Anyone who is serious about their religion. I mean really serious. Does the hard work of delving into its murky depths with a willing, open heart and mind – ready to learn and understand all there is to from any and all sources. For myself, and I believe many others, we often emerge from these waters baptized into agnosticism by a realization that there is little evidence to have faith in.Dan, its also funny that you posted this. Just minutes before reading your blog I discovered this quote by Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance):"When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called a Religion."

  2. September 29, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Glad you found it sensible. It never fails to surprise me when people simultaneously believe that religion is so important, but not important enough to actually spend the time to learn much about it.

  3. September 30, 2010 at 10:06 am

    Dan, have you been able to find the actual survey? They posted a few of the questions on nytimes but I'd be interested to try the whole thing.

  4. September 30, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Oh, nevermind. It's available in an appendix, though it's inconveniently structured.

  5. September 30, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Ya and where it says "survey" in my post it is linked for anyone else that wants to check it out.

  6. Pat
    September 30, 2010 at 5:35 pm

    Dan-You said above that "People simultaneously believe that religion is so important, but not important enough to actually spend the time to learn much about it." Funny thing is that this could be applied to politics as well. And isn't it ironic that the party who panders/exploits the religious right, is the same party who relies on people not spending time to figure out the facts. Its all fire and brimstone ("taxes and socialism") to the Republicans in order to instill fear in their faithful.

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