Atheists, Mormons, religious literacy, and unpopularity

I was perplexed by the recent study that claimed to show that atheists have more religious knowledge than religious people.  This seems counterintuitive.  There is a good analysis of the results at The Truth Shall Set You Free, in which it is pointed out that the survey failed to control for a number of other potentially important variables.  Namely, atheists are much more likely to be highly educated and white.

I would like to focus on a different angle.  Namely, why is it that this result clashes so strongly with my experience.  Reading and listening to atheists, I am always struck by how little they understand religion.  I certainly don’t blame average atheists for this–why should they take the time to study something they don’t believe in?  But it’s not just them.  Even the atheists who write books attacking religion make a great number of amateur mistakes about it.  For example, atheists attacks on the cosmological argument are nearly always aimed at a gross caricature of this argument.  Edward Feser has related his frustration on this point several times (see here, here, here).  And it’s not even “new atheist” loudmouths he’s dealing with, but professional philosophers.  Atheists are even worse when they turn from metaphysics to descriptions of religious experience.  I have never seen them describe the latter in terms of anything other than mindless fear or wish fulfillment fantasy.  Of course, fear and desire do take part in religious experience, but they take part in much else besides.  The distinctive elements of a confrontation with the Sacred are entirely absent from the atheist’s accounts.  All this shows how, even in the natural order, faith is needed for understanding.  When an atheist encounters an aspect of a religion he doesn’t immediately and effortlessly understand, he assumes that it’s nonsense and drops the matter.  After all, he’s quite sure that the whole affair is nonsense in any case.  Only someone who hasn’t already dismissed a religion will bother to appreciate its subtleties.  When we compare religion’s defenders to its attackers–David Bentley Hart to Christopher Hitchens, for example–there is no comparison whatsoever in breadth of knowledge or depth of appreciation for the issues involved.

Of course, even though Christopher Hitchens is an ignoramous, he would probably have scored well on the Pew survey, so I suppose that’s one thing wrong with it.  Still, the level of discourse on the pro-religion side is so much higher than on the anti-religion side, that there is still something to be explained.  Why should knowledge and understanding be strongly anti-correlated?

I think the main difference is that, in America, atheism reflects an actual belief, while Christianity is a sort of social default.  The latter thus includes everyone in the country who’s never given religion a thought.  Atheists, on the other hand, at least take religions seriously enough to take a real position on whether they are true.  I expect that a survey comparing serious Christians to atheists, correcting for education levels, would give very different results from the Pew survey.

The issue of seriousness also, I think, explains another fact:  the public’s general discomfort with atheists.  Atheists are not popular.  “Spiritual but not religious” people, on the other hand, are popular, even though they reject every tenet of Christianity that the atheists reject.  Why is this?  I think it’s because everyone realizes that being “spiritual but not religious” is just playing out a lifestyle choice, like choosing a brand of blue jeans; it doesn’t involve adherence to any actual beliefs about the Deity.  The only belief needed to be “spiritual” is in the wonderfulness of one’s own spirit, which must be so much more sublime than those of all those boorish “dogmatists”.  Atheism is actually the less arrogant position.  It is a belief about something other than oneself.  And yet I am quite sure that America will have a “spiritual” president before it has an atheist president.

The atheist takes religious doctrines to be actual statements about the world.  This sins against America’s true religion, that is, the religion of politeness.  To the average American, the archetypal moderate, religious statements are just things that people say to make life nicer.  He assures a grieving family that Grandma is in heaven, not because he believes it or expects those he says it to to believe it, but because it’s a nice thing to say, and it makes people happier to hear nice things.  He asks for God’s blessing at public ceremonies, not because he expects a response, but because it adds solemnity to the atmosphere nicely.  He attributes all his beliefs and prejudices to God, not because he really thinks that God hates tariffs, the line-item veto, or whatever, but to say in a grand-sounding way that he really hates it.  To such a person, confronting someone about whether they really, literally believe what they’re saying is a serious faux pas, akin to giving a child a brutally honest evaluation of his artwork.

Of course, it’s not just atheists who fall afoul of the religion of politeness; it’s also any religious believer who gives indications of seriously believing the things that come out of his mouth.  It wasn’t just atheists who scored high on the Pew test.  Mormons also did very well, and no religious group in America is more unpopular than the Latter Day Saints.  You’ll remember that Romney being a Mormon was a big deal.  Why is this?  Some would say that people are repulsed by the “weirdness” of Mormon beliefs, but how many Americans have ever even heard any of these beliefs?  No, the one thing that everyone knows about Mormons–and it’s the only thing that matters–is that they’re serious.  They actually believe “that stuff”.  When they say “God bless you”, they’re actually asking an omnipotent Being to do something, and that freaks people out.  “These guys are nuts!  We’ve gotta keep them far from power,” thinks “moderate” America.

Catholics used to be a despised group, because Catholics, you know, actually believed “that stuff”.  Then came Vatican II, when we gave society at large that wink and nudge that means “we’re not serious”.  Now, instead of anti-Catholicism, in America we have anti-clericalism, because the public still can’t shake the suspicion that the Catholic clergy, at least, are serious.  Would that it were true!  As “Justin” says, based on the Pew results

 Ouch! Roman Catholic religious education –> EPIC FAIL

Actually, I think that, being (I think) a non-Catholic, he is being overly generous.  A more accurate equation would be

Roman Catholic religious education = nonexistent

How long, oh Lord, must this Springtime of Vatican II last?

11 Responses

  1. […] 25.10.10 in Links, religion To the average American, the archetypal moderate, religious statements are just things that people … […]

  2. Atheists don’t necessarily fail to understand religion – indeed, most of us from the U.S. grew up in religion with varying degrees of understanding exactly what we were subscribing to. We just arrived at nonbelief after the supposedly high level of discourse involved in Christian apologetics failed to convince us of the truth of god’s existence. We concluded that all the “sophisticated” arguments for a god are unhelpful at answering the fundamental question. For us that fundamental question is “yes, but after all your theology, is it _true_ that god exists?” I suspect that you think asking that question is an amateur mistake, and if I’m correct it reveals a lot. Perhaps you are correct that if one weeded out the hoi polloi of god followers from the Pew religious-history-trivia results, the remaining well-educated Christians would score as well as the atheists. But what would that prove? It certainly wouldn’t provide a basis for concluding that the believers are correct.

  3. If you read the Pew study, you will see that, when they corrected the results for levels of education, the relative results (rankings) were the same.

  4. Hello Murdock,

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. That is an interesting result–it would seem then that they did make the more obvious corrections. It doesn’t affect my theory, that “Christianity” is the identification of those without any interest in religion at all education levels. Do you know if they checked how these numbers varied with degree of religious observance? (I know; I shouldn’t be so lazy. I should go read the thing myself.)

  5. Hello Jennifer,

    Thank you very much for your comment. You are quite right that whether or not something is believed by the most educated doesn’t prove anything about whether or not it’s true. I hope I didn’t give the impression that it did. What I was hoping to explain was something that struck me as counterintuitive about the Pew result, namely that the most knowledge about the subject was possessed by those who would presumably find it least interesting. It’s as if a study showed that people who hate football know more about the game’s rules than football fans. It’s unexpected, even if you believe that the rules of football are stupid.

    I certainly don’t think that asking whether or not God exists is amateur or unsophisticated. In fact, I praised atheists for at least being forthright enough to face the central issue squarely, and I’m happy to do so again. The “amateur mistakes” I was referring to were criticisms of the cosmological argument that misunderstand the argument’s metaphysical premises in fundamental ways. (See the links to Feser’s blog for details.) I do think understanding the unique metaphysical claims made about God are important for evaluating arguments for His existence. (See my Defence of Religion for details, if you’re interested.) Of course, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to spend more time than you already have on this stuff. Life is short. People who write books about natural theology, though, should do their homework.

  6. Wow. Won’t demean my response by calling this brain dead, but there’s some things you need to understand. Atheists are more informed on religion because a high percentage of them came out of religion, and to reach their philosophical stance had to study and prove their beliefs. I myself am an Exmormon who became a Christian, and have a lifetime of study behind me. I know more about both Mormonism and Christianity/the Bible than 95% of “believers” Visit a forum and two and observe the debates. Atheists are people who declare their philosophical stance based on knowledge. Agnostics are the norm because they simply lack the intellectual desire to pursue the knowledge. I have yet to meet a religious person (I’ve known and interfaced with literally hundreds) that wasn’t either dogmatically narrowminded or simply refused to look at the facts objectively.

  7. Hello Mr. Young,

    Thanks for commenting. As I wrote in my post, I agree that the average atheist has more religious knowledge than the average Christian, largely because many Christians have the intellectual vices that you notice in agnostics. This higher degree of knowledge still, however, strikes me as very poor. Even “professional” atheists often have fundamental misunderstandings about the claims of classical theism, e.g. the meaning of divine simplicity or the nature of sacramental efficacy.

  8. Just because someone grows up among religious people does not mean that they understand what religious experience is from the inside. It’s something you have to have yourself.

  9. Jonathan Haidt has shown that liberals can’t understand conservatives, though conservatives can to a large degree understand liberals. Something similar seems to hold for religious people vs. atheists. Atheists may have a knowledge of religious externals, but they can’t get inside the minds of religious people. Hence they tend to look like idiots when discussing the topic.

  10. This is a major theme in Ed Feser’s “The Last Superstition,” which sealed my decision to become a Catholic. Most of the time, it seems professional atheists look well-informed only in comparison to fundamentalist Protestants. If you only look smart compared to the dumbest person in the room, well…

  11. To be fair, there are many intellectually impressive Protestants.

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