The Pew Poll

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?

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Posted in Current Events, Society, Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “The Pew Poll”

  1. JohnMWhite Says:

    “if the beliefs have no practical, meaningful content, then what’s really left to hang around for?”

    It provides political capital and a good excuse to dislike people that just make you uncomfortable, like gays, women or other races.

    This is a good analysis, though I’m not sure why the two trains of thought on the subject have to be presented as differing sides. Orzel’s point that atheists tend to be motivated in learning does not really conflict with the idea that many atheists became unbelievers by learning about their own beliefs, nor with the overall point that atheists just know more than the religious about religion. To be specific, the study does not exactly indicate that atheists/agnostics know more about x religion than x religion’s own followers, but that atheists know more about religion in general than people who claim to be religious. Obviously the average fundamentalist Christian is not going to be able to answer much about Judaism or Islam, and the average fundamentalist Muslim won’t have many answers for questions on Christianity or Judaism, but atheists have probably heard plenty about all three, enough to put them off for life.

    I agree with both your pennies though (penny for your thoughts?). I don’t think we need overstate it as some blogs have done, but I disagree with the dismissal I have seen in other places that claim to say this says anything at all is a bit rash. True, surveys aren’t the most accurate of tools, especially bad ones, but this one appears to have been fairly straight forward and gives us a good indicator that religious knowledge is lacking among the religious. That they are capable of proclaiming faith in ignorance of what they are faithful of, and of what they are dismissing out of hand, demonstrates exactly how hollow and automatic religion tends to be.

    I was raised as a Catholic and unfortunately I was a goody two-shoes who wanted to impress the teachers by knowing things about it… and through the not very strenuous efforts of a child I very quickly knew more than the teachers who were tasked with my spiritual development and my enquiring mind began to see holes and flaws. A friend of mine was even worse – he took it upon himself to attend Mass and learn the faith and ask questions in school, and when the teachers discovered they could not really answer his honest but probing queries, they banned him from speaking in class. Of course these people considered themselves Catholics in good stead, but I often wondered what, exactly, was so Catholic about them if they understood nothing about the faith other than “abortion is murder” and “homosexuality is a sin”? That is all they wanted to pass on to us, and all they appeared equipped to deal with, and not very well at that.

    Which brings me back to my original point – faith seems to be whatever justifies your ingrained beliefs that have no rational basis and, in modern society, would largely be considered unpalatable without ‘faith’ to underwrite it. That does not just include overt characteristics such as misogyny or homophobia, but more subtle issues like the egocentric idea that one is so special in the universe that somehow, some way, there’s someone up there keeping an eye on you and making sure that good things will happen for you. None of these ideas would be tolerable without the capital of religious ‘faith’ to back them, and then to many they become unimpeachable because, after all, it’s someone’s faith.

  2. mikespeir Says:

    I grew up Pentecostal, and in the Assemblies of God the Bible and what we believed about it were drilled into us. Obviously, I can’t apply this to every AGer, but for the most part I think you’d find them knowledgeable about their own beliefs. Curiously, though, I was an adult before I knew what Lent was. It was one of those silly institutions that wishy-washy, “backslidden” denominations fooled with. Then, when I moved on to Methodism, I found they knew all about Lent but practically nothing about the Bible. Why, when I arrived at their adult Sunday School class I was suddenly an “expert,” and was soon teaching the class.

    My point’s buried in there somewhere–I think.

  3. Tacroy Says:

    I just wanted to point out this incredibly timely article by John Shook on the Huffington Post, in which he not only says that atheists don’t know enough about religion in order to debate it properly, but the fact that we don’t know enough about religion is making it so that the theistic side of the debate can be lazy and just agree with us that religion doesn’t make sense. Money quotes:

    Astonished that intellectual defenses of religion are still maintained, many prominent atheists disparage theology. They either dismiss the subject as irrelevant, or, if they do bother to acknowledge it, slim refutations of outdated arguments for a medieval God seem enough.

    But don’t worry, defenders of religion say, there’s no need to learn deep theology or debate God, thanks to dogmatic atheism’s bad example.

    I am just amazed at his awesome timing with this article. Truly, no foot has ever been so thoroughly shot.

    And the best part is that (at least in theory), he’s on the atheist side of this debate! Man, with friends like this who needs enemies?

  4. mikespeir Says:

    Shook’s all wet. Instead of chopping at the roots he’d have us up in the treetops snipping at leaves. For every leaf we cut off theologians will grow a new one, just different enough so as to make us waste more time going after it. It’s an exercise in futility. The problem is that the whole enterprise of theology defies obvious reality. We don’t accomplish anything, but only play into the theologian’s hands, by pretending it doesn’t.

  5. Hunt Says:

    To me the “take home” point of this survey is that atheists/agnostics and skeptics (probably the best word) have actually given religion, as a concept, the most thought. They are statistically, more knowledgeable. As a caveat, tho, I’d have to say that really “religion, as a concept” really boils down to the idea of faith, that one should actually believe something based other than on certainty. For some people, this seems to be admissible, for others it’s an automatic fail. The people for whom faith is a “fail” investigate religion as a global concept and, finding no certainty in it, reject it eventually. This explains why these people have a more complete knowledge of religion as a whole.

    I’ve read a few religious blogs that make the point that what really matters is specific knowledge of a certain religion. So Mormons, as I recall, score highly in Biblical knowledge. But this, obviously, isn’t an indicator of global knowledge of religion. These are already people who have self-selected themselves into the category that think that faith is a valid concept.