- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Those ruler-wielding nuns and the grape juice and cookies at vacation Bible schools didn’t do a good job.

Nonbelievers know more about religion than Christians do, according to a Pew survey released Tuesday. The poll shows, among other things, that half of American Christians don’t know the authors of the four Gospels and almost half of Catholics (45 percent) don’t understand the significance of Holy Communion.

“Large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions — including their own. Many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are,” the report says.

Atheists and agnostics averaged 20.9 correct answers for the 32 questions, the highest number for all groups in the survey of 3,412 American adults conducted from May 19 to June 6 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Jews and Mormons, who averaged 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers respectively, followed close behind. Among the groups large enough to be broken out in the executive summary, Hispanic-American Catholics finished last with 11.6 correct answers.

While every group did better with questions specific to its own religion — white evangelicals and Mormons, for example, scored highest on questions measuring knowledge of the Bible — once questions about church and state and other world religions were factored in, nonbelievers wound up doing the best overall.

David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association, called the results “not at all surprising” and attributed them to what he called greater rationality and education among atheists and agnostics.

“Contrary to what a lot of people think, atheists and agnostics have given a lot of thought to religion. … Atheists and agnostics tend to be very well-educated people,” he said. “The more dogmatic that one is, almost by definition, the less critical thinking is happening.”

Participants were asked about Christianity, the Bible, Judaism, Mormonism, world religions, atheism, agnosticism and the role of religion in public life. The questions ranged from “Was Joseph Smith Mormon, Catholic, Buddhist or Hindu?” to “In which religion are Vishnu and Shiva central figures?”

While some of the questions were difficult or abstruse, other results showed surprising lack of knowledge even about the tenets of people’s own religions.

For example, just 19 percent of Protestants knew the Reformation teaching about salvation through faith alone, and 47 percent knew that Martin Luther initiated the Reformation.

Also, while just 33 percent of Catholics could identify Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the authors of the four Gospels, the same percentage of Jews could identify the much harder, and irrelevant to them, question about what the Catholic Church teaches about the Mass — that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

In every question asked about the Old Testament, a higher percentage of atheists and agnostics answered correctly than Christians did. Also, on questions about the New Testament, atheists and agnostics averaged more correct answers than Catholics did.

“I wouldn’t have been shocked if the results were even worse,” said Christian Smith, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame. “Many people’s religious practices and experiences are only loosely coupled to their beliefs.”

Mr. Smith added that because most people are raised in some religious tradition, atheism is usually a belief at which one has to arrive rather than an identity one can absorb.

“To be an atheist in America is to be unusual,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s a position you have to tend and you have to fight for. You can’t just kind of take it for granted.”

Atheists and agnostics also knew more about world religions than any other group surveyed, with 86 percent correctly identifying the Koran as the Islamic holy book, whereas just 52 percent of Protestants and 44 percent of Catholics knew that.

White Protestants and Catholics scored significantly higher on the survey than ethnic minorities of the same religions (black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics), and those with a college education tended to do better than those with a high school diploma or less. Those who took a class on religion in college also had a higher overall religious knowledge than those who did not.

The survey did not have enough Muslims to break out as a separate group and provide details of their knowledge of their own and others’ religions.

The Pew quiz also had sections on how religion is handled in the U.S. as a political matter, and Americans tended to think restrictions on religion are tighter than they are.

While 68 percent of those polled could correctly identify what the U.S. Constitution says about religion and government, just 23 percent of survey participants knew that a public school teacher can use the Bible as an example of literature, and 36 percent knew that teachers can teach a comparative-religion class.

America has “systematically educated them about knowledge of the separation of church and state, but we never educated them with knowledge of the things that are being separated,” said Joseph Bottum, editor of the New York-based religious journal First Things.

Republican participants averaged 17.5 correct answers, while Democrats averaged a score of 15.9 and independents scored 15.7; those who identified themselves as liberal averaged 16.7 correct responses, conservatives 16.6 and moderates 16.2.