Do atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals?

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The short answer is: No.

You may have noticed a bit of buzz recently about a new survey that (so the buzz is saying) shows that atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals do. I’ve seen self professed atheists make this claim online before, and now their bias confirmation tendencies have kicked into overdrive with the release of a recent Pew Forum study.

Let’s do some checking (sorry infidels.org, it’s what some of us do).

First, here’s the way the study is being reported.

The Atlantic Wire introduced the public to the study with the provocative question, “Do Atheists Know More About Christianity Than Christians?”

Truthdig’s popular “Ear to the Ground” blog entry on the subject opened with a similar claim:

Well, this is awkward. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life undertook a study in which nonbelievers correctly answered more religious knowledge questions than the devout. Mormons and Jews also scored well and, like atheists, know more about Christianity than Christians.

Now, the survey isn’t perfect. For example, it requires respondents to say that Martin Luther started the Protestant reformation, which is historically false. But on the whole it’s ridiculously simple. But I want to point out two things – things that I think are being (deliberately?) omitted when atheist bloggers and discussion board users crow about this survey:

First – and importantly – there exists an inconsistency in the way atheists are defining “atheists.”

I have had the repetitive experience of pointing out to atheists that technically, an atheist is a person who claims that God doesn’t exist, and therefore they are taking a stance that requires reasons to believe. The response I usually get is that the category of atheism is much broader. It includes, I am told, all those who lack religious belief altogether. But in this study, “atheists” are categorised separately from those who lack all religious beliefs. Now this clearly distorts the numbers. If we use the narrow definition of atheism as those who have self consciously decided that God doesn’t exist and to identify as one who promotes this view, then of course it makes sense that one is interested in religion and would know about it. But if we use the very wide definition that online atheists so often ask us to accept, and if we assume (as I do) that the group comprised of those who lack specific religious belief but wouldn’t be in the active group that I just referred to is larger than the more vocal “atheist/agnostic” group, then in fact the average score of this combined group, as we can see, would be either the same or lower than, for example, the “White Evangelical Protestant” group.

This suggests that in fact, even according to what we find in this study, it has not at all been shown that atheists did better in this test than Christians, because the definition of atheist used here is problematic.

Why is it that when wanting their group to appear more knowledgeable, vocal atheists use one definition of atheist, yet when wanting to make their view appear more widely accepted they use a different definition?

So that’s the first issue: Integrity. On its own it casts doubt over the claims made about “atheists” knowing more about Christianity than Christians.

The second issue is truthfulness and omission. It is claimed by many that atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals do.

[EDIT: As I said in the comments below, I initially misspoke here. I initially said “Christians” in the above sentence, but as per the title of this post, I should have said “Evangelicals,” noting that Evangelicals are usually the target of these comments by atheists, even though Evangelicals did better than atheists in these results. I have corrected this here and left this note to make sure readers realise that the original version contained this error.]

However, anyone at all who has checked the study will immediately discover that this is false. The study neither showed nor implied any such thing. [In fact Christian groups – evangelicals in particular – performed better than narrowly defined atheists] As the Pew Forum notes:

On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average).

This does not surprise me in the least. Since those who narrowly define themselves as people who know what all religious faiths are false and take some pleasure in arguing against them (if you think this isn’t fair, I suggest you start using the internet more), it stands to reason that self professed atheists would try to know something about world religions. The same would be true if you selected Christians who are missionaries in other countries or who are defenders of Christianity against other religious worldviews.

I have no issue with the study. It certainly indicates that local churches need to be doing more to teach theology. They need to ensure that their members actually understand the faith they preach, no doubt about that. But I do take issue with the truthfulness and integrity of those who would use the study to show things that it actually does not (namely – as the title of this blog entry says, that atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals). A Christian group performed better than atheists, yet such details are unlikely to matter to people with an agenda who would use research like this to suit that agenda.

Glenn Peoples

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29 thoughts on “Do atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals?

  1. And if it’s true, why then did my Atheist ethics lecturer go down in flames when he tried to offer a few negative interpretations of scripture?

    XD

  2. You might also add in closing that Christians should do more to learn about other religions like atheists do, in case they have been born into or (“)chosen(“) the wrong religion. (Scare quotes used because it is amazing how people tend to “choose” the religion they are raised with, often without even giving serious consideration to any others. The geography of religion shows that choice has little to do with it.)

    On the whole I agree with what you’re saying – it’s not surprising that people know more about their specific religion that religion on the whole (or that atheists know more about religion in general, not being bound to any). I have said so myself previously.

  3. Richard, here’s the thing – I did cover this in the blog entry but evidently I wasn’t clear enough:

    The “atheist” category in this study doesn’t represent all who don’t believe in God. Most of those people are covered by the “nothing in particular” category. Those listed as atheists will be those who self consciously identify as atheists, and take an interest in opposing all religious beliefs (and so learning about them).

    Now, there already is a category of Christian people who do this. It is comprised of people like missionaries and apologists. Those identified as “atheists” here are not mere unbelievers. They are missionaries and apologists for atheism. I have met many of them and I think the description is very apt.

    I haev no reason to think that Christian missionaries and apologists would far worse than atheists missionaries and apologists. Unfortunately, those atheists got a category of their own, whereas those Christians did not – so we can’t tell what the comparison is like.

    I wonder if you’d be so good, Richard, as to speak up the next time you hear/read an atheist declaring that there’s good evidence that atheists know more about Christianity than Christians do. That’d be sweet.

    Cheers.

  4. Yes, I was wondering how the survey could have both a “agnostic” *and* a “nothing in particular” option. That seems more than a little strange, given agnostic covers that exact category.

  5. Thankyou for this Glenn, i have all ready seen some other discussion of this survey and it didnt bother to dig a little deeper but got straight into lambasting Christians.

  6. I’m not convinced all the Ath/Ags are ‘Atheist apologists and missionaries’. You can find the categorizing methodology in Appendix B. It is simply self-described ‘affiliation’. Besides the (surprising) bit that many people call themselves ‘nothing in particular’ as opposed to Atheist or Agnostic, it’s plainly not the case that all Ath/Ags are missionaries for their beliefs, regardless of what your experience on the internet may tell you. Doesn’t apply to me or my friends, for example. (Whilst we’re on the topic of hasty generalization, not all of us think Atheism is ‘lack of belief’ either). Besides, Glenn, your criticism bites its own tail. If, in fact, Ath/Ag shouldn’t include ‘nothing in particular’ (contra what some Atheists think) then, in fact the people who ‘should’ be considered Ath/Ags really do better at religious knowledge.

    It’s false that Ath/Ags do better on Christianity than all Christians. However, they do better on Christianity than *most* Christians – only Mormons and Evangelicals have them ‘beat’. Allegedly, even corrected for educational achievement (which Ath/Ags do better on anyway), they still do well, although it isn’t clear to me a) how this correction was made, and b) whether it applies to the ‘Knowledge of Christianity’ bit. The bigger worry with this study is the lack of statistical rigor: as far as I can see, there isn’t anything indicating whether the differences are significant or not. If not, then any finer dissection of the results of the study is a waste of time.

  7. Thrasymachus: thanks, saves me having to type that! The only thing I’d add is that maybe Glenn should spend LESS time on the internet: not everybody in the world blogs or contributes to discussion boards about their beliefs. It’s really just us nerds. Real world’s kinda different than the interent — I’d suggest most atheists are out playing sport and having sex with lots of women, not sitting in their Mum’s basement playing (with their own) Halo.

  8. Glenn, atheists aren’t missionaries. Atheists are, depending on your definition (and both are used) either people who have no belief in God or who believe there is no God. I don’t know many atheists who do anything about it. You’re thinking of what might be called ‘militant atheists’ or perhaps a better term would be ‘activist atheists’ – people who actually promote atheism (like me and very few other people I can think of). These are generally people who are anti-theists (a different category from atheism), and only a subclass of these (because, again, a lot of anti-theists aren’t activists).

  9. Richard, I get the feeling you haven’t really read this post or the comments. Read what has been said here about the fact that there are two categories in the study that would be considerd “atheists,” and read what has been said about the distinction between the two.

    I have already fully addressed this most recent comment of yours.

  10. scrubone – An agonostic is someone who believes whether there is a God is a question we can’t answer (Huxley’s original definition), or someone who is undecided about it. People who are nothing in particular are probably apatheists, who may or may not be agnostics – the important point being they haven’t really thought about it much and don’t really care. So I think they are different categories – you have to do at least a small amount of thinking and study before you go calling yourself an agnostic.

  11. Strictly speaking, agnostic means “lacking knowledge” – or at least lacking a claim to knowledge. If you ask an “apatheist” whether or not God exists, you’s probably get an answer like “I don’t know,” and that’s agnosticism.

    Now, there will be agnostics who have thought about it and agnostics who haven’t, but they’re agnostic nonetheless because they don’t claim to know one way or the other.

  12. Glenn, the kinds of people Richard calls ‘apatheist’ would probably answer not with ‘I don’t know,’ but with ‘I don’t care,’ wouldn’t they? Anyway, I agree there’s something suspect with Richard’s definitions: he says that an agnostic is someone who EITHER thinks the existence of God is a question we can’t answer, OR someone who is undecided about it. I’d suggest that people who haven’t really thought much about it or don’t care (‘apatheists’) haven’t come to a decision on the issue, and are thus ‘undecided.’ So apatheists are (a subset of) agnostics, on Richard’s definitions.

  13. Matt, nonetheless, if I asked them ” do you believe that there’s a God,” they would say no.

    But yes, there is something slippery involved in the definitions here. Generally, non theists (people who atheists like to call atheists) would not try to persuad eanyone that their religious beliefs are false or unjustified, whereas those who self-identified as atheist/agnostic (undoubtedly a much smaller group) would be much more likely to be active in doing just that. This accounts for the result, I think.

  14. You say: “Matt, nonetheless, if I asked them ” do you believe that there’s a God,” they would say no.”

    Um, what? If they’d answer the question “Does God exist?” with “I don’t care,” why would you automatically assume that nonetheless they’d answer the question “Do you believe in God?” with “No”? Why wouldn’t they again answer with “I don’t care”? I mean, I think this is Richard’s point: that these two answers are different, and indicate a different sort of person. Problem is, on Richard’s definitions, they’re both agnostics.

    But as for you dubious empirical claims, I completely agree with Thrasymachus that your equation of the internet with the real world says more about you than what it does about the real world. The only thing I agree with you about is that Richard’s apatheists are Richard’s agnostics.

    NB: Although, I’m starting to wonder if there’s wiggle room for Richard: it might be that someone who believes in God but just doesn’t care about whether or not God exists is an ‘apatheist’ in Richard’s sense. In that case, apatheists wouldn’t necessarily be a subset of agnostics. Maybe these people aren’t even giving any thought at all as to whether or not God exists; they just simply believe it, as some kind of revealed or self-evident truth (perhaps something you are sympathetic with, Glenn). Then ‘apatheist’ would be a different category to theist/agnostic/atheist, in that it could include members from each group. I wonder. Anyway.

  15. In an interesting twist, I chanced to talk to a stranger who identified themselves as a “christian”. But they then proceeded to tell me they didn’t believe God existed.

    It would have been interesting to see how many “Christians” would agree with the Nicene creed. Sadly, even people in the top leadership of some churches don’t even meet the proper definition of the belief system (Glynn Cardy being a case in point).

  16. Hi Glenn,

    Perhaps you can explain something to me. It looks to me like the second table that you reference says that, on average, Christians get 6 questions about Christianity right, where Atheists/Agnostics on average get 6.7 questions about Christianity right. The Mormons and White Evangelicals you reference are subsets of Christians, but the average Christian figure is nevertheless 6, right? Or am I reading this wrong? Because if I’m reading it right, then the study does show that “atheists (narrowly defined) know more about Christianity than Christians do,” right? In that 6.7 is higher than 6?

    Just tell me where I’m going wrong here — I’m not statistician and even the most basic of maths could well be eluding me (maths ain’t ‘self-evident’ to me like it is to some people!).

  17. *6.2. Christians get 6.2 questions right, accorinding to the table (not, as I said above, 6), and atheists/agnostics get 6.7 questions right. So far as I see it. Sorry for dropping off the ‘.2’ in my question above.

  18. Also, I don’t know jack-shit about the Protestant Reformation, but Wikipedia reckons your wrong when you say: “For example, it requires respondents to say that Martin Luther started the Protestant reformation, which is historically false.” I don’t care to find out whether you or Wikipedia is right, but it does raise questions for me about precisely what you mean when you say the study required participants to give false answers. I expect that what’s going on is that you consider the Protestant Reformation to be something other than what Historians refer to it as, and that’s fine I’m sure you’ve got your reaons — but if that’s the case I would register my indignation that you try to brush that under the carpet.

  19. Pew Forum didn’t have an axe to grind and the results are hardly surprising given American Atheists are more likely to be have attended higher education than theists and are less myopic.

    I took the survey and got 28 out of 30. It was hardly taxing.

    Most Americans think N.Z is a part of England – so any subject-matter say outside Hollywood, the local football team will produce a fail by your average Yank.

    See ya.

    Paul.

  20. Matt, the title of this blog is: “Do atheists know more about Christianity than Evangelicals?” And my answer was “No.”

    I misspoke when I then said (well, implied), that all Christians scored better than atheists. They did not. Evangelicals did, which is what I started out saying.

    Also – Martin Luther didn’t start the Reformation. I think the problem, Matt, is the reverse of what you suggest. I’m talking about the Reformation in the way that a historian might, whereas the test, it seems, is using more of a comic book version of history.

    There were a number of important predecessors to Luther. It’s probably best to say that he thrust the Reformation into the limelight.

  21. Re: Martin Luther. Two things: Just because there was reformation before Luther doesn’t mean ‘The Reformation’ began before Luther; and, just because Luther had predecessors doesn’t mean he didn’t start ‘The Reformation.’ If ‘The Reformation’ is a name given (arbitrarily or not) to something that happened between times t and t* (as I suspect — seems to be a commonish type of thing in history; eg, the Renaissance) then to say ‘Martin Luther didn’t begin the Reformation!’ is ambiguous at best, and I don’t like that lack of honesty on such a crucial point.

  22. The title of your blog is fine. Your ‘second issue’ is not:

    “The second issue is truthfulness. As you can see from the comments I quoted earlier (and you can find more results via Google with no difficulty), it is being claimed that this study shows that atheists (narrowly defined) know more about Christianity than Christians do.
    However, anyone at all who has checked the study will immediately discover that this is false.”

    No — no they will not. What they WILL find, however, is that what YOU are claiming the study shows is false. So, my question is, why doesn’t the below criticism apply to you:

    “I do take issue with the truthfulness and integrity of many who are trying to make the study show things that it actually does not (where in fact it says the opposite).”

    It’s always been clear to me that, even if atheists were reporting the conclusions of the study incorrectly (which they were not), you invalidly drew conclusions about their truthfulness and integrity from that premiss. I think this should also be clear to YOU now, given that you have committed the same misdeed that you accused these atheists of committing (that is, of reporting the conclusions of the study wrong). I further think you owe these atheists two apologies (one for saying that they got the facts wrong, and one for drawing conclusions about their integrity and truthfulness from that), but I understand that probably won’t happen.

    NB: When you talk about ‘all’ Christians, you’re talking about the aggregate of all Christians, not every single Christian right? Because the study concludes that the GROUP ‘Christians’ knows less about Christianity than the GROUP’Atheists/agnostics’ does. I presume that in your response to me you were admitting this, but I’ve known people in my time who would try to fudge the issue by being ambiguous about the world ‘all.’ Not saying you would do this — I’m just being cautious.

  23. Matt, yes I realise the blog title is fine. Nobody ever questioned that. As I said, the title of the blog post sums up my point. It clearly indicates that what I mean to address is the fact that evangelicals are not more ignorant of Christianity than atheists, as some atheists claim.

    I have since explained that I misspoke when I used the word “Christians” rather than “evangelicals” in the second point. If you missed that the first time I acknowledge it, hopefully you won’t miss it this time. I don’t know why my previous comment wasn’t clear enough, but hopefully it is now clear. And a number of online vocal atheist sources do in fact maintain that atheists know more about Christianity / the Bible than Evangelical Christians do.

    Re: Martin Luther, no. I’m not interested enough to go into a class in church history about it here, but I’m comfortable just to tell you that the Reformation did not begin with Luther, except in popularised over-simplified accounts. If you won’t take my word, that is fine. You don’t have to.

  24. In other (but closely related) news, I didn’t like the poll. It was far too simple when it came to assessing a person’s knowledge of Christianity, so I’m going to make my own poll in the near future. I will also fix the atheist categorisation problem. Keep watching! 🙂

  25. Oh, now this I really want to see. Although considering how much more study you’ve put into the various topics such a quiz might cover than I have, I’m afraid to see how poorly I’d score.

    Oh! Idea! Perhaps you could turn it into one of those online quizzes, and when someone takes it and gets his score it can give book recommendations based on how well he did! It could be useful as a quick assessment tool that gives the person using it an appropriate starting point for his studies if he wants to learn more.

  26. Derek: I’m writing the quiz now, but I need to find a quiz engine out there that can categorise results by the way that people answer the “religious group” question.

    Another thought: On the poll I’d also like to add a scale right after the question about a person’s religious beliefs. The scale would indicate how important a person’s religious beliefs are: Not very important, fairly important, or very important.

  27. Glenn,

    1) You’re right that there is a real issue of slippery and hence inaccurate categories and terminology here.

    2) I think it’s also important to point out, as you do, that the study being cited to make atheists look good actually shows that evangelicals are better when it comes to Christianity. I personally find this important because – anecdotally in my case – when atheists rip on their opponents for not really understanding the Bible and Christian theology properly, their targets in argument/debate have been evangelicals!

    I have a question about 1). Obviously the category of “no religion” or “nothing in particular” is literally correct for atheists and therefore it correct for an atheist to tick that box. Anyone who denies this, I’m sorry, it’s just showing that they aren’t willing to face reality because of its implications. So when people claim that this study shows that atheists know more about Christianity than Christians, they’re passing on a claim that’s not really demonstrated, since in fact the data is incomplete and misleading. How many non believers are in that “nothing in particular” category? We don’t know – but I think common sense suggests that there will be quite a large number.

    But my question focuses on the fact that media outlets are merely passing on these claims. Can you really fault them? I got the impression that you were faulting anyone who passed on these claims, when all they were really doing is uncritically passing on unjustified claims. That’s what the media often does, right? It’s not like they’re seetting out to mislead anyone, or even misreporting the claims made by those involved in the study, right?

  28. Sandra, the key, I think, is the term “uncritically.” I realise that media outlets do uncritically pass on claims. I find fault with them for doing so, and I maintain that they bear a responsibility to be more careful and to identify any obvious sense in which a claim widely believed might actually be false.

    I happen to think that point 1) is obvious, and as such I fault any media outlet that fails to take it into account.

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