In September, the Pew Forum released the results of a poll which found that most adherents of most faiths don’t know much about their own religions. On what amounted to a quiz of general knowledge of religion, Protestants got an average of 16 out of 32 questions correct, while Catholics got an average of just under 15. The questions, it should be noted, didn’t concern complex matters of theology but were about very basic issues one would assume were part of any culturally literate person’s storehouse of facts.
For example, two-thirds of Catholics couldn’t name the four gospels and one-third couldn’t name the Biblical birthplace of Jesus. Less than half could explain the significance of communion. Meanwhile, half of Protestants couldn’t identify Martin Luther as a person of importance to their beliefs, a third didn’t know that Genesis is the first book of the Old Testament, and a third couldn’t identify Moses as the person who, according to the Bible, led the Exodus from Egypt. Meanwhile, half of all Christians thought that the Golden Rule is one of the Ten Commandments. And these are the same people who get all uppity about the Ten Commandments being removed from courtrooms and schools. Imagine how they’ll feel when they find out that somebody – Obama, probably – went and took the Golden Rule out of them.
When it came to matters of other religions, most Christians were pretty much hopeless. And they also knew very little about public policy and faith. For instance, most Christians knew that teachers can’t lead prayers in American public schools, but they also overwhelmingly – and wrongly – believed that the teaching of comparative religion was banned, and they even believed that the Bible couldn’t be the object of study in any context, which is also entirely false. That's what you get for listening to fear-mongering hyperbole disguised as journalism.
In some respects, the results aren’t particularly surprising. Polls show that a significant percentage of the population doesn’t know much about anything at all. Canadians tend smugly to assume that this is an American issue. But recent surveys here have shown, for example, that about three-quarters of Canadians have little idea how their own government works. Half think that the Prime Minister is directly elected. Fewer than one-in-four can correctly identify our head-of-state. Two-thirds cannot correctly name the provinces and territories in Canada. Approximately half perform below expectations on elementary-school level mathematics. A third of the adult population reads and writes at an elementary school level. And don't get me started on science. One poll found that 42% of Canadians believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed (!), while a further 21% are “unsure”. In short, their knowledge of natural history seems to come from The Flintstones rather than school. Results in the U.S. on similar questions are about the same.
Where things get really disturbing is when we start to cross reference polls. To take just one example, polls show that somewhere between a third and half of Americans want the teaching of biological evolution, the cornerstone of the life sciences, removed from the classroom. We can be sure that their opposition is on religious rather than scientific grounds because A) there is no scientific opposition to the existence of biological evolution and B) because the people who want it out don’t know anything about science. But now we find that they don’t know anything about religion, either. So why are they part of this discussion at all?
Now, here's the remarkable thing. In that Pew Forum poll on religion, the group that did best overall, with an average score of 21 correct answers and a whopping 82% scoring higher than 17, was...brace yourself...atheists.
Needless to say, most atheists aren’t gaining their knowledge of religion in churches. Indeed, judging from the results above, hardly anyone is learning much about religion anywhere at all. So what accounts for the atheists' relatively high scores? Well, one possibility may reside in the well-established fact that while atheism is always very rare, it is nonetheless correlated with higher levels of education. You tend to find more atheists among PhDs than you do among high-school dropouts, which is one reason why so many social conservatives revile academia. But the point is that more years of education tends to lead to greater cultural literacy in general, regardless of your beliefs. For example, I don't share the metaphysical assumptions of Buddhism, but I know the difference between Theravada and Mahayana, because I took a course on it.
My own suspicion is that there is another reason, too. Despite much fear-mongering in the past couple of years about the dire threat to civilization posed by the "rise" of the "new atheists", and the "spate" or "deluge" of atheistic bestsellers (apparently three books constitutes a "spate"), the fact remains, as one poll after another has demonstrated, that atheists are a tiny and reviled minority in the United States, distrusted even more than homosexuals and Muslims.
Accordingly, it may be the case that atheists feel the need to arm themselves, metaphorically, against a society that, while declining in terms of religious practice, nonetheless remains very firm in terms of religious belief and its position that non-belief is inherently immoral. (Or, rather, that non-belief in Judeo-Christian religion is inherently immoral. Most people have no objection if, like them, your disbelief applies only to other people's religions.) So perhaps it’s not surprising that a typical atheist’s arguments in this regard are sharper than those of the great masses of cafeteria Catholics and suburban Protestants who go to church a handful of times per year but nonetheless get praised on the grounds that “at least they believe in something” – even if they don’t have the slightest idea what it is.