Sep 28, 2010

Atheists Know More Than You!

When I say "you," I'm referring to the whole lot of you who are Jewish and Christian and whatever else you might call yourself. That is, according to a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life study, reported on in today's New York Times.

Mad props to those who identify as Atheist/Agnostic. But what explains why the A/A group seems to know so much more about religion than those who identify themselves with and profess it? I've got a simple answer, and no offense to my good buddies who are A/A, but I find most atheists and agnostics to be fairly, well, defensive about their stance. In my experience, they know a lot more than anyone else because they have to or need to in order to stand up in arguments of why exactly being religious is wrong, ridiculous, or just straight pointless. Without a religion to dwell on, knowledge on world religions is pulled from every corner of the earth in order to understand and explain away its ideas. Maybe that's a radical view, but from my experience, you have to be educated about something if you really want to argue it. Religious individuals are firm in their faith or beliefs set and often don't question anything because belief and faith are enough; in the end, there's no need to defend anything. It's a sort of false confidence that often leaves religious individuals befuddled when asked about basic big questions of their religion. When I say this, of course, I'm referring to everyone: Jews, Christians, Muslims, you name it.

Here are some of the surprising (and embarrassing) statistics with my thoughtful commentary:

+ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation. This is just ... wow. This is really sad. It shows you how much people in the modern period pay homage to the big dogs of the religious past. 

+ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Seriously? Really? I wonder if this alters how any Catholics feel about the rite/ritual. It also reminds me of the amusing (to me anyway) TV spot on some thief who stole the body and blood of Christ from a church in Pennsylvania. The people quoted in the spot kept saying "Someone stole the body! How could someone steal the body?!" Which just made me giggle. Anyone who just turned on their TV would assume that someone picked up a body from the morgue or something.

+ Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish. Oh wow. Really? Maimonides! Thirteen Principles of Faith! Probably the greatest mind of his time! This is embarrassing, and probably relates to a lack of education on the big dogs of Jewish history and memory. Shame shame shame my yidden!

+ The question about Maimonides was the one that the fewest people answered correctly. But 51 percent knew that Joseph Smith was Mormon, and 82 percent knew that Mother Teresa was Roman Catholic. Okay, so maybe I can dismiss the Maimonides thing. Mad props to the people who answered it correction (I wonder which group managed to get it right the most?). Glad to know that so many are familiar with Joseph Smith and Mother Teresa. It shows how far back our religious memories go -- they pretty much stop pre-1800 it appears. 

(Interestingly, they didn't get enough Muslims to really be able to say how their knowledge compared. This seems really, really bizarre.)


Daniel Saunders said...

This is sad, although, as someone who studied a fair bit of religious history at university, I have to say that religious ignorance among the faithful is not new.

There is a long-standing argument that as Jews we tend to prioritise the study of halakha (as the area of Jewish thought that has the biggest impact on our lives, and perhaps as a key part of what distinguishes us from Christians), and downplay Tanakh, philosophy and history, which may be what is happening here.

Still, at least the Jews were only a few points behind the atheists!

David Tzohar said...

An old saying says atheism is the religion whose adherents know only what they DON'T believe in. In order to sustain this negative stance they must have some idea of what others believe in. We Jews on the other hand have to know not only our own religion but other religions to know ma lehashiv leapikoros. To be a member of the Sanhedrin one had to be an expert in all forms of avodah zara, which of course is the subject of the masechet of the Talmud of the same name.

Dovid Chaim said...

They didn't ask religious Jews they asked Jews who are Jews only because they are called Jews by others.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Dovid Is that even relevant? They probably asked the person they called what their religious affiliation is, so those people are Jews because that's what they called THEMSELVES. I'm sure some in there were religious Jews. Either way, Maimonides is a historic Jewish figure. Not a historic only-for-religious-Jews Jew.

YC said...

Atheists and agnostics know just a bit more than Jews and Mormons
(link from NYT)

starlight said...

Chaviva, do you think it's possible that the Jews interviewed didn't realize the Rambam = Maimonides? That they just didn't know his "English" name? I had a lot of students the past two years who would get confused by those two names, b/c they had heard about the "Rambam" frequently, but hadn't heard him be called "Maimonides."

D said...

Something I have found in my informal talks with individuals who are agnostic and atheist is that (generally speaking) if they became Atheist or Agnostic, they did their 'homework.' By that, as far as I understand, they looked as best they could in their own religion and others before they reached the conclusions that they did. Based off of these talks, I can understand why Atheists and Agnostics may be more religiously informed.

Lisa said...

I totally believe these results. As an atheist who has actually read the bible, and studied religious history, the ignorance I see among the religious, especially the evangelical right is just amazing to me...

Laura said...

I wonder what atheists know, though, about atheism?

The article was also published in Reuters, and one of the comments was

There was no need for this poll. Logic would state that atheists are more open minded than their religious counterparts, who are on the whole, dismissive of other religions...

I'm really getting tired of the old "well, they're atheists so they must be open-minded" argument...for the 5-6 years I was a staunch atheist, yes, I did know a whole lot of various information about certain religions, but I never could put it all together—and I was more closed-minded than I ever was in my life during that time, myself. (What I'm saying is: The two aren't "logically" correlated.)

Shlomo said...

You say that our religious memory goes only as far back as the mid 1800's. Unfortunatly I think it is worse than that. People only know Joseph Smith because of the Documentary on Mormonism when Mit Romney was running for prez. And they only know mama Teresa because she was decently sainted. Unfortunatly Rambam hasn't made the news latley and the only national press Jews have gotten was Rubashkin

Friendly Atheist Lurker said...

It's also usually the case that atheists know a lot about religion because they were brought up with one. We are still less than 10% of the population in the US (and that's being generous and including agnostics as well as people who just answer that they have "no" religion and leave it at that, which could include some deists or even theists who do not subscribe to a particular organized religion). Most of the atheists I know were brought up in Christian homes (because most Americans are Christian, makes sense).

We therefore also had to really think about the religious "truths" we were taught in order to decide that they rang false to us. Not to say that religious folks don't think about - or even intelligently question and investigate - their own doctrines (many do), but nearly all atheists as a matter of course will have had to consciously think about and reject the religious claims they were taught as children and which were reinforced by the wider culture. Most of us also researched other religions (obviously rejecting those claims also) either through a period of discernment as we came to realize we didn't believe, or just out of pure academic interest.

For instance, I was raised in a typical Christmas-and-Easter, Southern, Protestant home and community, realized I didn't believe by age 15, but then converted to Roman Catholicism because it seemed so much more intellectual and historically meaningful and community-oriented to me (silly 18-year-old college freshman that I was). I tried really hard to make myself believe, because I found that a lot of the traditions, rituals, and ethical stances of the church resonated with me, but, ultimately, I just couldn't do it, and it still felt like a charade. I stopped going to mass after about a year.

I have since read and learned a lot about other religions, particularly Judaism (which brings me to this blog, which I find refreshing and fascinating) and Buddhism (which is of course nontheistic, although many cultural manifestations of Buddhism as a religion are filled with superstition and localized folk customs, as with any practice). I also find contemporary paganism pretty interesting, especially those exploring the potential of nontheistic paganism (such as Druidic naturalists, modern animists, pantheists, panentheists, etc.).

So, while I don't think it's that atheists are necessarily "smarter" than other people, it does seem true from my experience (both personally and of other nonbelievers) that we are generally over-analyzers and tend to naturally recoil at irrationality, especially when it is used to further arbitrary moral demands or, worse, immoral doctrines that divide people and foment bigotry.

We had to think long and hard about leaving the religion of our families and communities, and it is even harder to state this personal truth publicly, due to the lingering bigotry against atheists. This is why this processed is often compared to "coming out" as a homosexual. To me, atheism didn't really feel like a choice. It was something that was my truth that I could no longer deny just to fit in or make others happy or comfortable. I couldn't make myself believe in divinity if I wanted to.

Which is why I find converts between religions interesting, and Jews in particular, because Judaism (in my view, admirably) encourages questioning, arguing, and "struggle with God."


Post a Comment

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes Powered by Blogger | DSW printable coupons