Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are You Religiously Smarter Than an Atheist?

The Pew Research Center recently reported on a study about religious knowledge among Americans. 3,412 Americans were asked 32 questions about religion. On average, Americans got half of the questions correct.

The researchers concluded that the survey “shows that large numbers of Americans are uninformed about the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions -- including their own.”

Interestingly, atheists and agnostics came out on top (65.3%) in the study, with Jewish and Mormon adherents close on their heels (64% and 63.4% respectively). This top grouping was followed by white evangelical Protestants (55%), white Catholics (50%), white mainline Protestants (49.4%), unaffiliated (47.5%), black Protestants (41.9%), and Hispanic Catholics (36.3%).

While these religious groupings are interesting, level of education was found to be “the single best predictor of religious knowledge.” The table on page 21 of this previous Pew study (PDF) shows education levels of various religious groups.

Groups with above average levels of post high school education include Hindu (84%), Jewish (78%), Buddhist (74%), agnostic (72%), Orthodox (68%), atheist (65%), Mormon (60%), mainline Protestant (58%), and secular unaffiliated (54%). Groups that ranked below average include Catholic (47%), Muslim (47%), evangelical Protestant (44%), historically black churches (41%), religious unaffiliated (39%), and Jehovah’s Witness (31%).

Regular scripture study and “talking about religion with friends and family” were also contributing factors to answering survey questions correctly. 37% of respondents said they read scriptures at least weekly. Excluding scriptures, nearly half of religious respondents reported seldom or never reading books or visiting websites about their own religion. 70% don’t read books or visit websites about other religions.

Mormons buck the meager religious scholarship trend. “Fully half of all Mormons (51%) and roughly three-in-ten white evangelicals (30%) and black Protestants (29%) report that they read books or go online to learn about their own religion at least once a week.” Only 6% of all Americans and 8% of religious Americans reported such weekly activity.

Of particular interest to Mormons are the following findings. “Around four-in-ten Americans know that the Mormon religion was founded sometime after 1800 (44%) and that the Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus appearing to people in the Americas (40%). About half (51%) correctly identify Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as a Mormon.” Interestingly, only 93% of Mormons surveyed answered that Joseph Smith was Mormon (see here). I’m not sure what the other 7% were smoking.

The study sought to compare religious and general knowledge by posing nine questions “on history, politics, science and literature” 59% knew the name of the Vice President and 60% knew “that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.” Only 42% correctly identified Herman Melville as the author of Moby Dick. As with religious knowledge, those with higher levels of education answered more general knowledge questions correctly.

While this study tells us something about the state of religious scholarship among Americans, it reveals relatively little about how Americans experience religion. It reveals little about how people view or experience their relationship with Deity. Pew publications released earlier this year on Prayer in America and Religion Among the Millennials do a much better job in that respect.

58% of Americans pray daily, but frequency of prayer differs dramatically by religious tradition. Groups with high prayer rates include Jehovah’s Witnesses (89%), Mormons (82%), black Protestants (80%) and evangelical Protestants (78%). The rate of prayer increases with age but decreases with income level. Women are much more likely to pray regularly than men.

I discussed the very broad Religion Among the Millennials study in this post. Younger generations are less religiously involved than previous generations were at the same age. But those that are religiously engaged are as strong in their practices and beliefs as were previous generations. Still, it appears that religion is an important part of daily life for a decreasing percentage of Americans.

On one hand, the religious knowledge survey seems like a relatively meaningless exercise in trivia. On the other hand, it gives us a snapshot of how familiar Americans are with religious matters in general, their own religion’s beliefs, and the religious beliefs of others. It’s another piece in a larger puzzle that helps form a picture of the state of religion in America.


rmwarnick said...

Penn Jillette was on TV the other night discussing this, and said the poll results correlate with overall level of education.

In other words, atheists and agnostics know more about everything, including religion.

Unknown said...

When I heard about the poll on the radio my reaction was basically summed up at the beginning of the last paragraph

"the religious knowledge survey seems like a relatively meaningless exercise in trivia."

enjoyed reading your post.