Well what a surprise… The Pew Forum carried out a survey where they asked questions about various different religions, and on average, atheists and agnostics got the highest scores, followed closely by Jews and Mormons. You can take a shorter quiz yourself and see how you do. It’s no surprise whatsoever. In fact I’ve been saying it for years, an atheist is more likely to have read the Bible in detail than a Christian. Particularly from my experience in the Catholic Church, people don’t read the Bible that much, they just hear it from the celebrant in mass (who is free to interpret it however he wants), and maybe learn about it in school. It was only after I read the Bible cover to cover that I became an atheist. So for me, Dave Silverman from American Atheists really hit the nail on the head when he said:
I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. 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.
Comedian David Cross made a similar statement on Countdown with Keith Olbermann. But there are other, more worrying stats coming out of this report which have little to do with the Bible. 45% of self-identifying Catholics did not know about transubstantiation, the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Christ. Now they might not believe that themselves, and I think the majority of Catholics don’t, but they should still know that that’s what their church teaches. Asked whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation, a majority of Protestants answered incorrectly, compared to 68% of atheists who gave the correct answer, Martin Luthur.
There have, however, been other reasons put forward. Tom Flynn from the Council for Secular Humanism said that as part of a fairly marginalised group, atheists and agnostics often have to defend their position, and that involves gaining knowledge of religious texts as a way to know your enemy. Penn Jillette quite correctly said that the results aren’t surprising at all, because atheists are more likely to be more educated in general:
Indeed the poll also asked 9 general knowledge questions and found that atheists, agnostics and Jews were also more likely to score highly on those. It asked the level of education received by respondents, and found a correlation between level of education and religious knowledge. The pollsters also differentiated between white Catholics and hispanic Catholics, as well as between white evangelical Protestants and black Protestants, and again it found that those ethnic groups that usually receive less education were more likely to score lower.