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.