The Pew PollSeptember 30, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
There’s been some discussion lately about the recent Pew poll that shows atheists outscoring believers on the subject of the believers’ own religious beliefs. PZ Myers and Ed Brayton are among those who see this as scoring a not-insignificant point for the atheists’ side, while Chad Orzel and Josh Rosenau are among those cautioning us against reading too much into this interesting statistic. Orzel cites Razib and Nisbet as pointing out that atheists, being in the minority, are more motivated to explore and understand the religious beliefs of others, since they’re more likely to find themselves “in the crosshairs” of a dorm-room discussion or a knock at the door. Brayton, meanwhile, points out that many unbelievers (of which I happen to be one) started out as believers, and became unbelievers precisely because they learned what they were believing in, and thought about it.
Neither side should be lightly dismissed; each has something important to say, and a valid point to make. And of course, I have my own two cents to toss in.
My first penny is that I tend to agree with those who think this statistic is a telling point in favor of unbelief. Truth is consistent with itself, and the more you know about something that’s really true, the more you can see how well it fits with all the other facts. Conversely, of course, the more you know about something that isn’t true, the easier it is to find inconsistencies and contradictions. Since at most one of these religions can be The Truth, it makes sense that most religions would benefit from a higher degree of ignorance among their believers.
The second cent is this: faith is a belief, but you can’t just have a belief. You have to believe some thing. If most believers know little about what it is they’re believing, then what exactly does their faith consist of? They obviously don’t miss their beliefs if they don’t even know what they are, which implies that their faith is of little practical importance to them in their everyday lives. Oh, it’s important symbolically, as a kind of banner to rally around. But again, if it were really important enough to rally around, wouldn’t it be important enough for people to know what it is?
This is one of the things that greatly disturbed me when I was a believer, because I did believe that Christian beliefs were important, and I couldn’t understand why almost nobody, in any church, seemed to hold the faith in high enough regard to want to learn it. At least not in the pews. You could preach it, people expected you to preach it, but, well, tomorrow’s Monday, back to the real world, eh? That’s part of the reason I ultimately left my Christian faith behind. God doesn’t show up in real life, miracles are only rumors, exaggerations and superstitions, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be doing much in people’s hearts. If the faith is hollow too, if the beliefs have no practical, meaningful content, then what’s really left to hang around for?