Are you smarter than an atheist?
In a book titled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know â€“ And Doesnâ€™t, university professor Stephen Prothero wrote that â€śAmericans are both deeply religious and profoundly ignorant about religion.â€ť This summer, researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey to find out just how ignorant we are. The answer seems to be â€śyeah, pretty ignorant.â€ť On average, Americans correctly answered only 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the Bible, some basic elements of Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, and world religions, the role of religion in civic life, and the definitions of agnostic and atheist.
In fact, the main take-away from their summary was that â€śAtheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups . . . outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholicsâ€ť – even after controlling for differing levels of education. So yes, an atheist with a college degree does know more about the worldâ€™s religions than, say, a Catholic with a college degree. And so does a Mormon. Interestingâ€¦
Although you can’t take the entire 32-question survey online, they have a shorter 15-question version you can use to gauge how well you’d have done. Spoiler alert! Some of the answers are contained in this blog post, so do it now if you want to go it uncoached.
How do Pagans do on this survey?
Pagans are very literate folks â€“ one well-known saying that has spread around the community is that Jews and Christians are People of the Book, but Pagans are People of the Libraries. (I wish I knew who said it first!) So, youâ€™re probably wondering how Pagans did on the survey. Sadly, there werenâ€™t enough Pagans responding to the survey to count. Who know, maybe there werenâ€™t any. Their sample size was only 3,412 adults. About its methodology, the Pew Forum wrote:
Other religious groups, including Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist, were also included in the general population figure, but there werenâ€™t enough respondents to report on each group separately.
By contrast, agnostic/atheists (about 4% of the adult population), Jews (1.7%) and Mormons (1.7%) were oversampled so that their groups could be reported on separately. (According to its groundbreaking US Religious Landscape study , Pew found that â€śNew Ageâ€ť religions accounted for about 0.4% of the population, so no wonder they couldnâ€™t find anyone to survey.)
OK, so where do Pagans fit into this new study, then? Frankly, as ancient history. It turns out that 65% of all respondents knew that Zeus was the king of the Greek gods (selected from a multiple choice of Zeus, Apollo or Mars). Thatâ€™s about the same as the amount of people who can correctly name Genesis as the first book of the Bible, and more than twice as many as the number of people who know that the majority religion in Indonesia is Muslim. So thatâ€™s something, right?
Well, not really. Although Greek gods were listed in a question, there was no indication in the survey that anyone in the world actually worships them today. The question was phrased as mythology: â€śDo you happen to know which of these is the king of gods in ancient Greek mythology?â€ť
But hey, look at the bright side: at least two thirds of Americans know who Zeus is in the first place. Less than half of those surveyed, on the other hand, knew that Vishnu and Shiva were Hindu deities (as opposed to deities of the other two choices, Islam or Taoism!), so if nothing else it shows how pervasive Western mythology still is in the public knowledge, or at least in the school systems that produced these survey respondents. So next time you find yourself explaining your Paganism to someone, be thankful that at least you can start out with a frame of reference that theyâ€™re already familiar with. I hate to think of what Hindus must go through when attempting to explain their religion to an outsider! Speaking of which…
No one is interested in other religions
Another important take-away for Pagans to consider is the fact that most people in America have their heads buried in their own religions, and really arenâ€™t taking the time to find out about others. While the survey showed that a whopping 37% read the Bible or other Holy Scriptures at least once a week (not counting worship services), their interest in reading stops right about there.
Nearly half of Americans who are affiliated with a religion (48%) say they â€śseldomâ€ť or â€śneverâ€ť read books (other than Scripture) or visit websites about their own religion, and 70% say they seldom or never read books or visit websites about other religions.
Hear that? Seventy percent of religious folks donâ€™t give a hoot about your religion. There were twice as many â€śneversâ€ť as â€śseldomsâ€ť â€“which means that nearly half of the everyday people youâ€™ll meet will have never read a book about another religion other than their own. (And for those â€śunaffiliated with a religionâ€ť itâ€™s not much better â€“ itâ€™s sixty-eight percent â€śseldom and neverâ€ť for them, too.) Whether thatâ€™s good or bad depends on to what extent these uninformed people are trying to legislate your religion at the same time.
The Salem Witch Trials? Really?
One last item of interest from the survey â€“ it also included general knowledge questions in politics, science, history and literature to serve as some kind of baseline. Here they found that basically, if you can answer the religion questions pretty well, youâ€™ll also do pretty well on the general knowledge questions, and if you were really bad at the religious questions, youâ€™ll probably be really bad at the general questions. It all comes down to how much attention youâ€™re paying to the world around you, or how well you perform on pop quizzes you never studied for delivered over the telephone. But there was one very tricky question that the general population scored very low on, and hereâ€™s where Witches come back into the picture:
â€śOnly about one-third of those polled know which famous court trial dealt with whether evolution could be taught in public schools; 31% know this was the Scopes trial, while 36% say it was Brown vs. Board of Education and 3% name the Salem witch trials.â€ť
I really hope those 3% were kidding. Seriously, because on every multiple choice question you could also just say “I don’t know.”
If you want to see what the questions were and who responded what to them, click here for the Who Knows What About Religion section of the Pew’s report. For a more readable overview, check out the New York Times article on the study. Please share your thoughts about the study, or your score on the mini-test, in the comments section.