Why Are Atheists/Agnostics the Most Religiously Literate Groups? September 29, 2010

Why Are Atheists/Agnostics the Most Religiously Literate Groups?

When a new survey that showcases atheists in a good or bad light is released, we’re all writing about it somewhere or another.

After the Pew Forum’s recent study on US Religious Knowledge showed that atheists scored higher on basic religious literacy than any faith group, there are a lot of responses out there from our community.

I wrote a piece for the Chicago Tribune blog explaining why atheists scored higher than others. My reasons?

  • Many atheists left religion in the first place because we learned too much about our faith.
  • Atheists pay attention when we hear religious groups make ridiculous statements.
  • Atheists tends to be better educated than the rest of the population.

More detailed explanations are in the piece.

Dave Silverman of American Atheists already got off a terrific zinger in the New York Times:

“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.”

But he wasn’t done there. Dave wrote a full piece for FOXNews.com adding his own explanations for why the study came out that way:

Many religious people do not read their holy books for fear of finding things they don’t like, which will force them to consider whether those easy answers are valid, and whether death is in fact permanent. In other words, religious people already have doubts, and avoid reading their Bibles to avoid addressing those doubts.

Preachers, on the other hand, know that knowledge of the Bible can often lead to atheism, so they prefer the flock listen to the preacher talk about the Bible (which the preacher can edit as he sees fit), rather than read it themselves. This is how they make a (tax free) living.

When a person begins to doubt the veracity of the religion into which they happen to have been born, they often read the holy books in the hope that they are wrong, that it will all make sense, and that the answers provided by those books will be logically valid. The problem is, they aren’t.

Further study will show that indeed, all religions are the same in that none of them provide anything but yesterday’s mythology.

I’d be shocked if any preacher actually wanted his flock to read less of the Bible — many large churches promote small group Bible studies — but I think Dave’s right that many Christians choose not to read the Bible for themselves. They like having someone else interpret it for them, leaving out the stuff that might cause cognitive dissonance. Which is disappointing. If people understood why they reject every other god, maybe they’d see why we reject theirs.

Tom Flynn of the Council for Secular Humanism has his own theory about the results at the Washington Post On Faith blog:

as adherents of an often-unpopular worldview, atheists and agnostics are frequently challenged to defend their position. In my experience, people whom propriety would restrain from grilling a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness about his or her religious beliefs are seldom shy about challenging the unbelievers they encounter. So even atheists and agnostics who didn’t engage in the study of religion in the course of abandoning their childhood faith feel pressure to come to “know thy enemy.”

Countless blogs have commented on this story, too. If you wrote something, feel free to link to it in the comments!

Are we missing any other possible explanations for why atheists fared so well (compared to theists) in this study?

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  • Greg

    Are we missing any other possible explanations for why atheists fared so well (compared to theists) in this study?

    I think the fact that atheists tend to treat all religions the same is important – it means we are more likely to have knowledge of religions other than the one we grew up in (if any). This certainly seems to be backed up by the statistics of the pew poll – along with Jews, we were by far and away the best at answering questions about world religions (which, considering Judaism is a part of those world religions, is perhaps not surprising…).

    I know of a number of atheists who, after losing faith in their own religion, tried other ones, and found they didn’t work either. I also know a number of atheists who are just interested in the subject, and so read up on many different religions.

    You don’t find many regular church goers who do the same.

  • VXbinaca

    Know thy enemy.

  • dmmaxwell

    “I’d be shocked if any preacher actually wanted his flock to read less of the Bible — many large churches promote small group Bible studies…”

    In every bible study group I’ve ever attended, I was always cautioned to never read the bible ‘without guidance’. In other words, ‘only read what we tell you to, and never without our interpretation of it beforehand.’ Talk about mental priming. The bible study groups exist to use the bible as reinforcement of the priest’s / pastor’s message, not to actually provide critical analysis of the bible.

    That said, I found reading the bible, cover to cover, was basically the beginnning of the end for me. I just really wanted to know what was in there. I suspect most atheists have done the same, and I think Greg hit it on the head – if we don’t find what we want in one book, we check another, and another, and another, until we decide that the answers we want aren’t to be found in religion. Such a comprehensive survey would be elucidating, if not illuminating.

  • Claudia

    Discounting the fact that atheists are drawn from the more educated in society because the study controlled for that there are several explanations:

    – As Dave Silverman pointed out, religious people with doubts will often delve into their holy books in the false belief that it will strengthen their waning faith. This means that someone on the cusp of skepticism comes face to face with a book that is undeniably human, and not holy, in origin. A perfect recipe for religion-literate atheists.

    – The fact that nonbelief carries such a stigma in American society means that nonbelievers are, at the present time, largely a self-selected group of people with the capacity and inclination to question and seek out knowledge on their own. This will undoubtedly change as nonbelief becomes more widespread. I’d cite Greta Christina’s great talk (from minute 47 on) on parallels with the GLBT movement and how we should get ready for atheists to stop being so great as we start being more numerous. I’ll bet if you did this same study in secular Western Europe, atheists and agnostics wouldn’t come out as well, since there’s little social pressure to be religious.

    – In some small measure, I think that insofar as nonbelievers congregate with peers and therefore submit each other to peer pressure, other nonbelievers feel the need to conform. You won’t find many nonbelievers willing to openly admit to not giving a shit about science, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact that it’s considered socially unacceptable in our circles to not be pro-science. There is a palpable social pressure amongst nonbelievers to know your stuff, to adquire and appreciate knowledge. Much the same thing can be said about the Jewish community, which did almost as well as we did. We are not immune to social pressure by our peers, and many atheists may have educated themselves about religion out of a realization that this is considered a standard requirement in the community.

  • Pseudonym

    The veracity of Dave Silverman’s “zinger” is easily tested by sampling clergy and academic theologians, and seeing if they know even more about religion than the average atheist. My hypothesis is that they do, by a huge margin, and hence Silverman is wrong.

    I do agree with Tom Flynn, though. I also agree with the converse of his argument: believers may not know that much about religion on average partly because they are not challenged in their beliefs. If they were, they’d have to learn more about religion whether they were believers or not.

    The good news is that as atheism becomes more mainstream, the level of knowledge about religion of the general atheist population will be diluted. So ask an atheist about religion while you still can.

    Oh, I’d also like to see the figures for European countries. This might be a geographic artifact.

  • Roger Rotge

    I’m not going to stake my non-existent reputation on this, but I have a hypothesis. Since the questions were about a variety of religions, a follower of each individual religion might not know as much about a religion other than theirs. Atheists, on the other hand, can come a wide variety of backgrounds and, on average, may be able to answer more questions, on average, correctly over a broader range of beliefs. If the questions were strictly about Christianity, I think the Christians would have done marginally better. If those “Christian” atheists, that is those atheists that were raised with a Christian background were asked only questions pertaining to Christianity, I suspect the atheists would still outperform their theist counterparts. The difference in the hypothetical study I allude to and the real one is that it might make the Christians look marginally better. I still think the atheist would outperform the rest.

  • Ron in Houston

    I think dmmaxwell was right about churches and Bible studies. The church wants to control the filter. They use Bible studies as ways to assist the pastor and his message.

    I also think Dave Silverman is right. I call it the “ignorance is bliss” factor. Many people have their faith, are comfortable with it, and don’t want it challenged and will avoid anything that might challenge it.

  • Jantien


    To compair fairly one should also check take in account the actual belief of said theologians as recent studies in Holland found 1 in 6 stating they don’t belief in god.
    Many others have frequent doubts about the truth of their faith.

  • A few years ago I was in a Christian small group bible study group who met weekly to discuss the bible. We ALWAYS used a bible study guide which had us hop-scotch though the bible reading selected passages for discussion that fulfilled a particular theme and objective of the study guide. We NEVER just read any section of the bible all the way through. I always found it interesting to read the passages just before or after the passage we were “supposed” to read.

    For example, is supporting the theme of God’s greatness, we were to read selected passages from Joshua 6 about the wall falling down (due to God’s greatness). Omitted was the slaughter of all men, women, children, and animals that followed… When I brought up the genocide issue, they preferred not to discuss it. Another example, The people in my small group honestly thought that it was the 12 disciples that wrote the various gospel chapters of the New Testament. I remember one humorous time when they were reading out the list of names of the disciples and were confused by not finding all the expected “given names” matching up to the gospel chapter names.

  • ABinMN

    Tom Flynn’s statement – “So even atheists and agnostics who didn’t engage in the study of religion in the course of abandoning their childhood faith feel pressure to come to “know thy enemy.”” – EXACTLY true for me.

  • Jeff

    I’ll probably get flack for this, but intelligence undoubtedly is a factor. Atheists, in general, are smarter. My understanding is that of the believers, Jews had the highest scores, and they tend to score higher in intelligence testing as well.

    All right, everyone pile in on me.

  • Jeff

    BTW, Hemant – excellent article in the Tribune.

  • Anonymous

    Holy shit an American Atheists essay on Fox News? Zowie, that comment thread is gonna resemble the fiery pits of hell! lol

  • Jeff

    Holy shit an American Atheists essay on Fox News?

    Yeah, I was surprised by that, too. Of course, if you peruse the comment thread, and see the those left by Christians – well, they’re as predictable as you’d imagine them to be. Conservative Christians only have about a half-dozen catchphrases among them, which they just keep repeating over and over like mantras. I suppose it’s for the same reason a number of you mention above about not looking too closely into the Bible – it prevents them from having to confront the contradictions and unpleasant bits.

    Thinking is hard!

  • rvkevin

    I wonder why no one has mentioned that the quiz involved questions regarding a variety of religions. Isn’t one of the factors of being an atheist comparative religion? If so, then it only makes sense that atheists are more likely to know about other religions than the religious.

  • Magnetic Dave

    Pseudonym: I’ll add my tuppenceworth to Jantien. Dan Dennett did a study on Preachers who don’t believe (http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/Non-Believing-Clergy.pdf); one participant commenting (somewhat hyperbolically) that “you can’t go through seminary and come out believing in God”.

  • dmmaxwell made a good point about never reading the bible without a guide or guidance.

    I grew up catholic, although I was never confirmed. We did have a bible in our house way back then, but I never picked it up, nor did I ever see any of my seven siblings nor parents read it.

    My neighbor grew up catholic. He said he never read the bible as a catholic, and that his priest discouraged reading it. The priest did encourage reading the official catholic book about the bible (please forgive me if there is no such thing – I am trying to remember his story from a few years back).

    He had a crisis of faith, got hooked by an evangelical boss (faith healing, speaking in tongues, etc), and has since turned to the charismatic/evangelical flavor of christianity. How was the boss able to convert that life-long christian? He had him actually read the bible (of course, with the boss’ guidance when needed).

  • rdbhcx


    Note that in the study, for strictly Christian questions, the score was:

    Mormon, 7.9
    White Evangelical, 7.3
    Atheist/Agnostic, 6.7
    Jewish, 6.3
    Black Protestant, 5.9
    White Catholic, 5.9
    White Mainline, 5.8
    Nothing, 4.9
    Hispanic Catholic, 4.2

    You can take the actual quiz there too.

  • littlejohn

    I suspect people who believe in elves, unicorns and flying saucers are stupider than those who don’t.
    What’s the difference?
    You expect someone who believes in a talking snake is going to be a Merit Scholar? They’re just stupid. It’s simple.

  • TychaBrahe

    One reason why Jews know so much about their own religion is because they actually do read all of their Bible (although admittedly not so much of the New Testament). Reformed and Conservative Jews “call off” parts of the Torah and Haftorah by threes, much like choosing teams for kickball. Then they read every third section each Saturday for a year, culminating in Simchat Torah, which falls somewhere in late September or early October, in which they read the last section of one year and the first section of the next. If you attend services every Saturday for three years, you will read the entire old testament. (If you are out of town, no worries. Every Conservative synagogue is reading the same section that week.) And the Tanakh that is available to follow along in the pews is in both Hebrew and English, and annotated to aid study.

    In many Christian churches, the pastor/minister will pick a topic, often relating it to events of that week, and then pick out Bible readings to support his ideas. In Judaism, the rabbi’s sermon will be based on whatever part of the Torah or Haftorah is being read that week. And pity the poor Bar or Bat Mitzvah child who has to stand up and explain how that day’s reading has brought insight into his or her life, when the reading was the begats of Genesis or the many “thou shalt nots” of Leviticus.

    Personally, I know I had a very hard time becoming an atheist. I didn’t want to give up a belief in the divine, even if I didn’t feel anything. I went searching. I took courses in Eastern religions. I read the Book of Mormon. I read the New Testament AND the Apocrypha. I was a Witch for five years, and read The White Goddess and Drawing Down the Moon. I toyed with my own belief system based on fictional deities and saints. (To this day I will offer a prayer to St. Vidicon of Cathode for malfunctioning computer equipment. I just don’t expect an answer.) Of course I know more than your average “all other religions are works of Satan” one-church parishioner.

  • OneTrueKinsman

    I think that, since most atheists are skeptics, the belief that something supernatural started the world and life itself automatically destroys anything religion has to say after that. This seems to be the same starting point for all religions.

    Take for example Genesis 1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

    Or even the origin story from the Zulu tribe “The Ancient One, known as Unkulunkulu, is the Zulu creator.”

    How about the Chinese origin story? “In the beginning , the heavens and earth were still one and all was chaos. The universe was like a big black egg, carrying Pan Gu inside itself.”

    When you start questioning the supernatural elements of ANY story, and when you find those elements unbelievable, religions fall apart quickly.

    For more creation stories, here’s the site you can reference:


  • Matt

    Know thy enemy mat account for some portion, but it doesn’t account for why we would know *more* than the enemy. The only factors I could see are intelligence, but probably more likely, we just study the material more. Someone mentioned a good bit of the material is comparative religion. That’s actually an area that I’d guess atheists are more familiar with than evangelicals.

  • I think religious leaders who have read the entirety of their religious text have a far greater capacity for cognitive dissonance, which is why they know more than we do, but still believe.

    My first remark upon seeing this study was basically, the more you know about religion, the less you believe. I’ve been urged to read the Bible in order to believe (I’ve never believed) but reading the first page about God creating the Earth in 7 days is as far as I get before shutting it. As Dawkins says, you can’t cherry pick what is literally true and what is metaphorical.

  • Flynn’s “challenge hypothesis” makes more sense than Silverman’s claim that “reading the Bible makes people atheists.” While the latter principle may be true for some, it’s not true for all. There is no lockstep relation there.

    And here are my own blog comments on this survey, FWIW. And here is some discussion about it, on my Delphi forum.

  • cassiek

    For me it wasn’t so much “know thy enemy” as it was “know my friends.” Starting at age nine I read Greek, Roman and Norse mythology, the bible, the Baghavadgita and Upanishads and any info I could find on Native American mythology. I just wanted to know what the big deal was about religion.

    Even at that young age I decided that they were all fiction and simply the means by which primitive peoples explained the world. My atheist/agnostic parents supported my curiosity btw. I doubt my religious friends’ parents would have done so.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    Flynn’s “challenge hypothesis” makes more sense than Silverman’s claim that “reading the Bible makes people atheists.”

    Indeed. I’d say that it’s far more likely that religious believers don’t read their holy books out of laziness than out of fear. I doubt that they are really thinking that deeply about their beliefs.

  • Mr Z

    The reasons cannot be as simple as a short list of things, so the explanation must incorporate some measure human character. As Claudia says above, the loosely knit ‘community’ of non-believers does put peer pressure on us to know what we are talking about and why but there is more to it.

    We humans have well developed skills with abstract thinking, cooperative behaviors, and like all animals a driving need for safety and comfort. These things drive our addictions in one way or another – all of our addictions. Included in the list of addictions is religion. It provides a feeling (right or wrong) that we are safe if we follow the rules, that we can endure hardships now because we’ll soon get another fix, and one day we’ll live forever in the bliss of escapist fantasies…. heaven.

    If you told a drug addict they could spend eternity in the wonderment of the perfect high I doubt you’d find any of them not willing to do whatever they need to get prepared for that.

    No matter how comforting the escapism is, people somehow manage to figure out what they’re doing and change. Religion/faith is escapism, is an addiction, is born of and suckled by our basic human needs for comfort and safety. The addict will never sit back and think about or worry about the details if it means they will possibly lose their connection to the next fix.

    Simply put the addict will not study the medical books and articles about their addiction. Why should we expect that believers will read about their addiction?

  • Tyro

    While I hate to ruin good zingers, the study showed that atheists did not know as much about the Christian bible than the best Christians but rather we knew more about religions in general. We knew more about other religions than Christians while knowing less about Christianity than the best of them. If you took the test you’ll see that it was not focused on the bible as you’d think if you just read these editorials, rather it asked about many different world religions.

    The best conclusion is that American Christians are ignorant about what the rest of the world believes and American Atheists are less ignorant.

    The most likely cause is that out atheists in the US are likely to be better educated and more highly motivated to learn about other religions because atheism is so rare and so attacked in the US that it tends to attract motivated, driven, educated individuals.

    I think the media zingers are funny & awesome but between ourselves I think we should admit that the surveys probably don’t support us as much as we’d like.

  • Tom Flynn’s words make sense. I get asked all the time why I am now agnostic/atheist when I used to be religious. Most of those that ask knew me when I was religious, so I talk about my de-conversion a lot.

  • Hitch

    For me it’s just interesting that this came out after a two week stretch of various places trying to make atheists into being ignorant critics of religion.

    Of course that wasn’t true. It’s nice to have another study take that out of the mis-representation pool.

    I do not think there is one explanation. There are atheists who leave their childhood religion because they read up on it and realize it’s bunk. There are those (me) who never were in a religion, but are in the pool of science-interested, hence again inclined to study, investigate and all that. I do not buy the defense argument. Too many atheists are closeted and in this study it was clearly safe to say you are an atheist even though your neighbors may never know.

    If a prosyletizer knocks at your door, the reaction is not a long argument for many, but “I’m sorry but I don’t have time”.

  • Fundie Troll

    But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1Cor 1:27-29)

    There you have it, the answer straight from God himself.

    So do not revel or boast in your earthly wisdom, because God will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning. In stead seek the wisdom of God that is in Christ Jesus, and believe on him and you will be saved!

  • @littlejohn — Seriously, “they’re stupid” is your explanation? This valedictorian, Merit Scholar, honors grad of a top-10 law school used to believe. Content-free ad hominem is not an argument worthy of this space.

    As for the study results, one huge factor has to be that atheists and agnostics actually stop to understand religious beliefs. The religion of many believers is incredibly superficial, what I call “bumper sticker religion.” They know some very basic essentials of the faith, a lot of stock catchphrases, and what their pastors or political leaders tell them. Digging into the details, even of their own religion, either doesn’t occur to them or is frowned upon as a betrayal of faith. “Be like a little child” is not an uncommon phrase, especially among evangelicals.

    And FORGET learning about other religions. That’s just asking the Devil to tempt you.

  • Hitch

    “God will destroy the wisdom of the wise”

    Encouraging ignorance just to get to believe in a fairy tale that won’t come true? No thanks.

  • Robert

    One radio host commenting on this survey stated that in his opinion it had something to do with the fact that the top three in the survey- Atheists, Mormons and Jews were minorities percentage wise in terms of population, with Atheists being 2% of the population (his statistic), Mormons about 7% and active Jews (not just by heritage) about 9%. The argument being that they were used to defending their position and as such had studied more.

    My thought is that most evangelical Christians are simply lazy and don’t study much of other religions. They are comfortable where they are and don’t explore. From my own experience I have studied my Christian religion and doing so has greatly increased my faith.

  • muggle

    Huh, one other thing did occur to me as reading the comments. It’s half-way mentioned with the peer pressure comments but not really. For all I’ve read on this since it came out (and everyone is talking about it), I haven’t seen mentioned one other thing we do:

    We share the knowledge. We do expect one another to be able to support our claims but that’s because we actually discuss and disect what we say to each other. This is by far the best Atheist blog I’ve been on and even Hemant is called on to back up what he says. (So many blogs, you are booed and hissed if you dare challenge the blog host.)

    As we do, we share the knowledge we have in our explanations. Just look at everyone’s comments. Especially TychaBrahe’s and OneTrueKinsman’s with specific knowledge about specific religions they have experience with. Hemant’s first book is more of the same. Sharing what he found when he tried out the experiment of going to various churches. But on the blogs, on FB, where we know another Atheist face to face, we talk. We’re almost obnoxiously eager to share what we know and think about anything — not just religion. We love discussing shit whether it be religion, science (people, yes an Atheist can find science over her head, largely, but even then I do listen and try to understand what other’s tell, I just have to struggle with science and comprehending it), politics, or the latest hit movie that we just saw last night.

    Think of the difference between our conversations and that of the religious. We may say something like Hitchens is so cool or Dawkins is right on the money or go FFRF but compare that to the praise Jesus and praise Allah and the hushed tones of which the religious speak of their leaders in. I do have to qualify that a bit as recently I did get knocked by a local Atheist group for daring to disagree with Dawkins who I run hot and cold with. I agree with about 2/3 of what he says. However, can you even imagine going to a church every Sunday and being able to say when fellow parishioners are praising the minister, I agree with about 2/3 of what he says? No way.

    And we’ll dissect the damned movie instead of just saying that’s such a good movie, you should see it or don’t waste your time, it sucked. We often have to use the phrase spoiler alert.

    Our peer pressure is to have knowledge; theirs is to have faith. It’s a huge difference. With faith, you not only blindly believe without examining it too closely, you don’t question your religious leaders. It’s part of having faith. That’s exactly why preists have gotten away with molesting children for so long. That kind of coverup in any other institution would have totally destroyed or at least overhauled the entire institution. If a public school district did, a school administrator covered up a teacher molesting children say, angry parents would wreak havoc with the school and the administrator would hang with the guilty teacher. Teacher would go to jail and we’d all be pissed off because the administrator got fired instead of going to jail for aiding and abetting. But the pope, the pope — an ex-Nazi — who played a role in the coverup, is free to stand up in public and call Atheists Nazis.

    Ok. That’s my two bits. We’re eager to have knowledge and eager to pass it along as well. So we have that too. We share the wealth.

    As for challenge and reading, I agree with both. I went to Judaism before Agnostic and then Atheist and went to a Conservative synagogue for six months along with Hebrew and conversion classes before deciding not to go through with the conversion. (They make damned sure of you first, very smart.) It’s as TychaBrahe said. They read a section of torah every Sabbath. That played no small factor in my not going through with the conversion. It didn’t stand up on examination either. And obviously lots of Atheists have gone through studying lots of religions before giving up faith altogether. Especially those of us who were brought up religiously. Letting go of god is not easy. But we’re where we are because whatever one we studied individually brought us to the same conclusion. (And that’s another thing we share with one another openly, how we concluded there couldn’t be a gawd.)

    Challenge is important too, I think. Those who remain faithful aren’t overly challenged. At least not by each other and the extremist are like a dog with a bone. As has been mentioned, they keep reguritating the same lines over and over again no matter how rich and famous a defender of the faith they are. That’s because it’s all they’ve got and we’re the only ones challenging them.

    I’ve backed off in the last few years but still occassionally do this when a Christian is especially obnoxious. I always challenge them to prove something to themself, not me, to read the buybull cover to cover front to back skipping nothing five times on their own without guidance from their religious leader (though I say feel free to ask them questions about what you have read). I do this because everyone I’ve ever run across who has done this has lost their faith by the third reading with one exception whose doubts kicked in big time during the fourth.

    It’s a fair challenge and few ever take me up on it which just tells me that they are indeed afraid to examine their faith more closely. Ironically, most who have read the buybull did for like reasons that I did — to get close to god and understand him better. I wound up understanding him better all right — understanding that he’s a big freaking scam and nothing more. When I was going to temple and taking the Hebrew and conversion classes with the serious intent of converting (I selected Conservative because I liked the middle of the road feel of it between two extremes as I almost always do in most things), it freaked out Gentiles (Jews were very supportive both ones belonging to the synagogue I attended and ones who went elsewhere). I’d be asked all the time who was Jesus then. I didn’t know as much way back then (this was some 29 years ago) about how questionable it is that Jesus even existed and I’d reply probably the best con man of all time.

    So, yeah, not being challenged and refusing to be challenged play a huge factor in this. BTW, I also found buybull study groups to be very limited in scope and the content very monitored by the minister.

  • kml

    FYI: The survey/poll showed that Christians scored higher on Christian questions than any other group.

  • muggle

    Fundie Troll, way to prove a lot of the theories put forth! Refusing to challenge your brain? Very good. LOL!

    Go on take my challenge that I mentioned in the comment above which was probably too long for you:

    To prove to yourself that your faith will survive it, I challenge you to read the Bible (you pick the version) cover to cover, skipping nothing, five times in a row (yes, I realize this will take years, I devoted an hour a night to it when I believed, you can give God an hour a day, right?) independent of your religious leader’s guidance though you are allowed to ask him questions about it?

    Go on. Do it. And see if your faith remains strong. If you can’t give God that kind of faith, you might want to ask yourself why.

  • Thegoodman

    “…many large churches promote small group Bible studies..”

    Which “randomly” choose passages to be read and discussed. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of these groups avoid Leviticus outside of its “anti-gay” message or the story about the bald guy who had a bear eat some kids.

    If anything, these study groups promote the selective teachings of the delusional people who lead them (often wanna-be pastors).

  • Jeff

    But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

    Yeah, that’s it.

    Now I have to repair my irony meter again. Damn thing keeps busting…

  • I think it has quite a bit to do with the current culture of atheism itself. I explain it better, I hope, in this post.

    Edit: It turns out Muggle and I shared the same thought.

  • Siamang

    Dave Silverman seems to be good at rattling off zingers, and not so good at making statements supportable by fact.

    The plain truth of the matter is that clearly this was a test of broad understanding of many religions, not deep understanding of the Christian Bible, for example.

    As such, atheists have a broad understanding of many different viewpoints on religion. Others have given lots of reasons for that to be so.

    I also wanted to call him out on the factual inaccuracy of this zinger:

    This is how they make a (tax free) living.

    Religious institutions are indeed tax-free, as are all non-profits. But preachers and all other employees of the church still are required to pay income tax. If he doesn’t believe me, perhaps he can tell me why Kent Hovind is in prison.

  • Jeff

    If he doesn’t believe me, perhaps he can tell me why Kent Hovind is in prison.

    I thought it was because his faith wasn’t strong enough.

  • Let’s not be too impressed by our “high” score on the survey. Atheists (and Mormons and Jews) correctly answered about 65 percent of some very basic questions about religion.

    We only look good because everyone else did so poorly. On average, we’re slightly less ignorant than most Americans. BFD.

  • Hitch

    “FYI: The survey/poll showed that Christians scored higher on Christian questions than any other group.”

    This is not strictly true. Atheists/agnostic scored 6.7 as a group while christians as a group scored 6.2 still beaten by jews at 6.3.

    Now looking at denominations, white evangelicals and mormons do outscore atheists as a group, with scores of 7.3 and 7.9 respectively.

    Atheists as a group come it third on the christianity, second on world religions (after Jews) and first on public life issues of religion. And that only if we take the best-informed christian denominations not the average. If we take the average christian, atheists are first on christianity, second on world religion and first on public life.

  • Siamang

    I thought it was because his faith wasn’t strong enough.

    No. God’s just testing him.

  • Jeff

    God’s just testing him.

    Of course. Silly of me.

  • maybe somebody has already said it, but: they don’t know about their faith because they are cowards. to me, that is the essence of religious belief. fear of death. fear of homosexuality. fear of being called a hypocrite or coward. fear of what science really means. needing to be in the company of like people in order to reinforce a false sense of bravado in life.

    yes, i’ll just say it. i’m sick to death of believers telling me that my intolerance of superstition is a bad thing. even the nice ones. i’m intolerant of slavery, sexism, and homophobia as well. i see no reason why i shouldn’t be vocally intolerant of learned and willful ignorance, esp when that ignorance mostly supports projects which reduce or remove my civil and human rights.

  • The veracity of Dave Silverman’s “zinger” is easily tested by sampling clergy and academic theologians, and seeing if they know even more about religion than the average atheist. My hypothesis is that they do, by a huge margin, and hence Silverman is wrong.

    gonna strenuously disagree with you here, friend. the truth is many theologians are atheists, agnostics or bald doubters. really, take my word for it. i spent a great deal of time among them and let me give you this anecdote which illustrates my point. my students club in Divinity school had a weekly lunch. the table was always set up with this “shrine” which was a long-running joke among the faculty & students of the school. it had a silly or mocking representation of many of the most famous disputes in the history of religions. a rubber chicken (voodoo) a buddy christ, a dildo/shiva, a cross eyed Buddha, a bleeding cracker, and elephant headed professor figurine… you get the drift.

    i have grilled more professional theologians on this point than i care to count, and the bottom line is that most of them are in the business for the same reasons congregational leaders are in it: it’s easy work. please, don’t kid yourself. as we say about homophobes, so too it is mostly true for “theologians,” they know what they’re arguing over is mostly bunk. fire breathing types are rarely that well learned, and the well learned are too busy scheduling lunches and conferences about angels and pinheads to be vigorously believing. indeed, most theologians think it in “bad taste” to demonstrate “too much” belief. i remember the mocking of one theologian when he changed brands and went from one sect to another. everyone who knew him gossiped about how he only did so to draw attention to himself.

    please understand too that those who wear the mantle of the title “theologian” look down their noses at “common preachers” and semi-literate religious entertainers. the former considers itself to be a liberal academic group of high brow philosophers, and thinks of the latter group as showmen and hucksters.

  • Flynn’s “challenge hypothesis” makes more sense than Silverman’s claim that “reading the Bible makes people atheists.”

    i think it depends on where you live. if you grew up like cassiek did, it’s a simple matter of recognizing mythology as mythology. but if you grew up in a place where “Jesus Loves You! This I Know” is the official religion, permeating into every aspect of society, reading the Bible can come as a big shock. many bible belt folks live in a type of Jeebus Disney land, in which there are no atheists, Muslims or Buddhists and the few there may be are seen a circus freaks. there is also little connection with the texts of their faith *in context* and the practice of it. i grew up in such an environment and even i, raised as an agnostic/disinterested in religion, was shocked to learn that Jews didn’t believe in the Christian constructs of heaven and hell. it wasn’t so much that i had been indoctrinated with Christian belief as it was utterly un-discussed. it was a “fact” of life in my childhood.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    chicago dyke:

    to me, that is the essence of religious belief. fear of death. fear of homosexuality….

    With all due respect, you really ought to go read something like Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained before making a pronouncement like that. Indeed, there have been religions where homosexuality hasn’t been demonized (the ancient Greeks come to mind) and religions where the afterlife sucks for everyone (e.g. the Sheol of ancient Judaism).

    You’ve also exemplified why we shouldn’t get too cocky about the Pew poll results. Yes, when it comes to very basic knowledge, like who Moses was supposed to have been, we do better than average. (I even got 15/15 on the online test.) However, being atheists hardly makes us religious experts.

  • Jeff

    We only look good because everyone else did so poorly. On average, we’re slightly less ignorant than most Americans. BFD.

    Yes, but the atheists did above average on something they don’t really care about. The theists did crappily on something they see as the bedrock of their existence.

  • All_no-ing

    I’ve been a Mormon for 30 years but have completely left those ideologies and now ascribe to atheism.

    Mormonism strongly encourages scripture study, but is really good at dancing around the uncomfortable passages, even in its own scriptures (i.e Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Abraham).

    I had 4 years of seminary during HS, went on a full-time mission for 2 years, and attended church every Sunday. I was the ideal Mormon in so many ways. And I considered myself well educated and reasonable.

    Then I started reading *outside* material and found that I couldn’t make my Mormon ideologies work with reality. As I read more, things only got worse.

    Right now I am reading Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. This book has nothing to do with Mormonism, but it pretty much destroys the story behind the Book of Mormon. I had always known that there were some anachronisms in there, but holy cow! The BOM claims that there were cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, as well as coins, chariots, a sophisticated written language, and even steel weapons in the pre-columbian Americas. None of those things existed before the Spaniards. Talk about destroying faith by making the truth inescapable!

    So, back to my point. Mormons know a lot about the Bible and Christianity, but it is only the faith strengthening ideas that make it through the filter.

  • J. J. Ramsey


    Yes, but the atheists did above average on something they don’t really care about. The theists did crappily on something they see as the bedrock of their existence.

    Except that’s not true at all.

    Most American atheists don’t like religion, but given that we’re a minority who has to deal with religious people who oppose us, that most of us used to be religious people and learned a lot about our former religions as we deconverted, we’ve damn well come to care about religion.

    It’s the believers who can afford to coast and go with the flow and not put much thought into their beliefs.

  • Jeff

    Most American atheists don’t like religion, but given that we’re a minority who has to deal with religious people who oppose us, that most of us used to be religious people and learned a lot about our former religions as we deconverted, we’ve damn well come to care about religion.

    It’s the believers who can afford to coast and go with the flow and not put much thought into their beliefs.

    We’re knowledgeable about it, but we don’t care about it in the way they do. For us, it’s a cultural artifact. For them, it’s a raison d’être.

  • Don Rose

    I had to add insult to injury. Religious people need a wake-up call. I added this to the comment section:

    “Love it. Atheists know more about religion, and everything else. Belief in magical, wish-granting ghosts is certainly a symptom of mental issues. period. If you have these types of symptoms, seek help. I wouldn’t waste a second of my time debating specific passages from a book of myths and fables. Offended? Good! Gonna make a flaming comment, and threaten me with eternal damnation with the fiery goat-man? Go ahead…… but be prepared…. I’m going to point at you and laugh. Your voodoo has no real power in 2010, and it never had any real power….. ever. Religion is a mental illness, or at least a symptom.”

  • Kay

    Just as a point, I took the PEW forum quiz myself. As an atheist, I scored a 14/15.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Jeff: “For us, it’s a cultural artifact.”

    Or a thorn in the side.

    Jeff: “For them, it’s a raison d’être.”

    I think you overestimate the extent to which most believers regard their religion as a reason for being.

  • Hypatia’s Daughter

    Most people get taught their religion as children – generally Sunday schools start on 3-year olds. You’re not taught at a very sophisticated level as a child and learning stops after Sunday school ends (about age 13). After that, most people think they don’t need much more learnin’.
    (The same holds true for non-religious education – few people want to learn more stuff after they graduate from school. One reason why the US never switched to the metric system is because adults would have to re-learn their weights & measures. Totally not fair!!)
    I find that the religious understanding of most adults is full “old wives tales”.

  • Adding my two cents in…

    As a believer, I was a pretty lukewarm one. I barely read the Bible, nor went to church. I did however believe that there was some kind of truth in what was proposed by priests, monks and churches, and it was reflected in the beliefs of good people.

    As I started to consider the factual questions, I suddenly became fascinated on how people could in fact believe so wholeheartedly in what was by then to me total nonsense!

    It may be that, for some atheists the additional knowledge is an attempt to understand the apparently ludicrous nature of religious belief.

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