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On the Ignorance of American Christians

September 29, 2010

Via Tyler Cowen, a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey has found that most American Christians are woefully ignorant about religion. Some unsettling facts:

¶ Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.

¶ Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.

If you want to know about Martin Luther or transubstantiation, it turns out that atheists and agnostics are likely to be a more reliable source of information than Christians. Unsurprisingly, president of American Atheists Dave Silverman concludes that atheism is “an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge.” Silverman adds, “I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

I prefer Half Sigma’s explanation of the data:

. . . the moral of the story is that people believe in what they believe for social reasons and not because they actually know anything about what they believe. And the same applies to belief in global warming.

While obviously not explaining why atheists scored better on the survey, Half Sigma makes the important point that atheists are by no means immune to societal influence. Surely, most atheists accept global warming with as little understanding of the science as the typical Christian possesses of theology and church history.

Not that that’s a bad thing. While not an atheist, I do count myself among those who accept the science of global warming — not just passively, but with an accompanying commitment to carbon reduction — despite having only the most rudimentary grasp of the greenhouse effect and other scientific principles. My logic is very simple: I accept global warming science because I trust the people who say that the planet is warming (chiefly, the IPCC) and do not trust the people who deny that the planet is warming (FoxNews, et al).

Is it a discredit to Christianity that its adherents also tend to reason like this? No — though trust obviously has its limits.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. catullus permalink
    October 1, 2010 6:36 am

    Atheists like me, who have young children, have to take religious literacy seriously. One day, when my little D. is a teen-age girl, she’ll undergo the usual tribulations. There’s a good chance that her peers will prescribe religion as the answer. She’s free to make up her own mind, but I owe it to her to teach her not to take what these peers or others say at face value. Religious literacy is the only way to do this.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    October 1, 2010 8:09 pm

    Makes sense.

    I wonder what you’d think of Jamelle Bouie’s take (http://ow.ly/2Ngh5). Bouie argues that religious minorities tend to know more about the dominant group as a matter of “simple survival.”

  3. catullus permalink
    October 2, 2010 10:27 am

    I think it largely holds, which accounts as well for all the misapprehensions religious minorities often make concerning the dominant group. I was never surer of what Protestants were about than when I was a believing Catholic.

  4. October 3, 2010 3:05 pm

    Since I started drifting from the Christianity I grew up with and headed toward agnosticism around age 20 or so, I’ve made it a point to try and learn as much about other religions as I could. I think many other agnostics are similar. In one article about the results of this survey, I’ve read similar reasoning for why atheists and agnostics tend to do better. They don’t really mention the more educated sector of followers of Christianity (such as yourself, for example) who come into their religious beliefs through the same methods. I’m sure there are atheists who profess a disbelief in a god of any kind for similarly uninformed reasons, as you’ve touched on here:

    While obviously not explaining why atheists scored better on the survey, Half Sigma makes the important point that atheists are by no means immune to societal influence. Surely, most atheists accept global warming with as little understanding of the science as the typical Christian possesses of theology and church history.

    We really need a more educated (and less anti-intellectual!) society ’round here.

  5. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    October 3, 2010 3:14 pm

    I’ll drink to a more educated society.

  6. October 23, 2010 8:37 pm

    I don’t accept global warming science because I don’t trust the people who say that the planet is warming (chiefly, the IPCC)

    That is only part of the reason. As a scientist, anytime I hear that something has been “proven” I wince. Any student of science knows that can never happen.

    The AGW movement has long since been more of religion anyway. I’m a firm believer that humans are hardwired for religion of some sort. So most “atheists” substitute scientism for God. In this case they substitute AGW as an article of faith, which can be seen by the type or rhetoric used against those that are “deniers,” a overly religious term if anything.

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