Monday, April 4, 2011

Are Atheists Smarter? Exposing a Superficial Survey

A few months ago you may have heard about a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

This survey led to media stories implying that Atheists and Agnostics have a greater knowledge of religions then any other religious group.

The survey in question is a series of 32 questions which may be seen Are you smarter than an atheist? A religious quiz, courtesy of the Christian Science Monitor (which happens to be owned by the Christian Science cult. The link goes to a secular anti-cult web site).

At the end of this blog I shall answer that question in the article's title.

Here are the results of the survey

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups in a 32-question survey of religious knowledge by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. On average, Americans got 16 of the 32 questions correct. Atheists and agnostics got an average of 20.9 correct answers. Jews (20.5) and Mormons (20.3). Protestants got 16 correct answers on average, while Catholics got 14.7 questions right.

How will you do on the quiz?

I tried it out. Once I started I did not consult anyone or anything else on the Internet to help me with my answers.

I got 31 questions right out of 32.

The one I missed was Question 4 about nirvana.

I remembered as I was doing it all the media stories based on this which implied that this showed that Atheists were more knowledgeable about religion.

I remembered one time watching a left wing radio host (who happened to be Atheist, but that is not the point) saying (I paraphrase), Look at all these religious fundamentalists. This survey shows that they do not know what they are talking about, even about their own religion.

I remembered one time reading a political commentator I greatly respect and admire (who happens to be Baha'i, but that is not the point) saying religious people should be humble knowing that on average Atheists are more knowledgeable then they are.

I think this survey is pointless. An exercise in futility.

As I was going through this quiz I strongly felt, Wait a minute.

So what if, let's say a Catholic, does not know that Maimonides happened to be Jewish?

Does that mean Mormons must be viewed as more knowledgeable then Catholics?

So what if a Hindu did not know that the fast of Ramadan happens to be Muslim?

Does that mean Hindus must be judged as being more ignorant than Atheists, Agnostics, Jews, Mormons?

So what if someone does not know what the majority religion of Pakistan happens to be?

Do you see what I am getting at?

This is pointless.

Most people are leading busy lives desperately trying to get the bills paid, perform well at work, finding work, spending time with family, solving problems, watching movies, reading books, making plans that it is only natural that people never got around to knowing that the Sabbath happens to start on Friday evening.

(For those of us who are/were involved in the COGs, other Seventh day Christians and Jews that question is easy. It's not so easy for everyone else.)

This survey has been all too easily used by people for their own reasons as an excuse to stereotype religious people as being ignorant.

People, particularly in the media, have thoughtlessly rushed to the conclusion that Atheists are smarter when the evidence is simply not that clear.

Why are Atheists, Agnostics, Jews, Mormons higher on the list?

Let me ask some other questions.

Well are the people in the survey educated? Are they not? Do they love to gain knowledge? Are others slightly less inclined? How enthusiastic are they in knowing information? Do they know someone who often talks about these matters?

There are many reasons why an individual would happen to know the answers in this quiz.

It is, I feel, wrong and misleading to say one group holding a particular worldview/faith to be more knowledgeable about religion based on the results of this survey.

I would not read much into the results of it.

There could any number of hard to detect reasons why the people in the survey happen to know the answers for this quiz.

Perhaps a disproportionate section of Mormons happened to be missionaries and so had to be knowledgeable about these things in order to perform that role. Perhaps some of the Atheists were ex-Christian, some were ex-Jews and this coincidence caused the Atheist score to go higher. Perhaps the Jews had an advantage because some knew the answers to the Jewish questions and knew enough about the other questions from the simple fact that they are a minority in the USA and information from the other religions seeps into the consciousness from everyone else around them.

None of these circumstances should allow anyone to cruelly demean and mock an entire people as being ignorant and less knowledgeable based on this superficial survey.

Should Christians think that Atheists are smarted than them simply because some of his or her co-religionists happened to not know the intricacies of the US Constitution (Question 21) and US Supreme Court rulings (Question 22)?

Should a Mormon regard Atheists as more knowledgeable about religion simply because some of his or her co-religionists did not say "Jonathan Edwards" when answering the question about the First Great Awakening?

This survey is pointless as far as I am concerned.

We must not stereotype an entire people holding a particular viewpoint based on the results of this superficial survey.

And now to answer the article's question: Am I smarter than an Atheist?

According to this quiz, I am. In fact the average Atheist score was 20.7. I got 31. So I, a Christian, am way, way smarter than the average Atheist.

(I hope the reader may tell I was being sarcastic in the last paragraph.)

As far as I am concerned this survey is utterly pointless.

I think it is a tragedy that people will thoughtlessly assume that Atheists are smarter, everyone else is more ignorant because of the increditably ignorant and embellished manner the media have presented this survey.

It would be a dreadful mistake to label people who hold a particular worldview based on the results of this survey.

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