October 5th, 2010
03:11 PM ET

My Take: Atheists not so smart after all

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life went viral last week.

According to Luis Lugo, the Pew Forum's director, over a million people have taken the online quiz associated with the survey, and the Forum “has had unprecedented Web traffic since the survey was launched, nearly crashing its servers on the day of release.”

Driving this traffic was the headline that atheists outperformed Christians and other religious groups in this first-ever national survey of U.S. religious knowledge. Or, as I put it in an earlier Belief Blog piece, "the big story here" was "that those who think religion is a con know more about it than those who think it is God's gift to humanity."

A closer look at the data, however, reveals that nonbelievers might not have the religious literacy bragging rights after all.

In a New York Times blog, Ross Douthat notes that Pew created two nonbeliever categories instead of one: the much publicized atheist/agnostic category (which got 21 out of 32 religious knowledge questions right) and a much larger category of respondents who described their religion as “nothing in particular” (which got only 15 right — a bit below the national average of 16 correct answers).

Douthat makes a common but nonetheless glaring error when he conflates the religiously unaffiliated with nonbelievers. According to a 2006 Baylor University study, for example, almost two-thirds - 63 percent - of Americans who claim no religious affiliation believe in God.

Still, Douthat got me thinking, so I emailed the Pew Forum for more information. As it turns out, the category of U.S. adults who do not believe in the divine is much larger than the category of those who describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics (likely because of the stigma associated with these terms).

So how did this larger group of nonbelievers do in Pew’s religious literacy survey?  According to the Pew Forum's Scott Clement, respondents who answered “no” when asked “Do you believe in God or a universal spirit” got 18.7 questions right, well below the 20.9 questions answered correctly by self-identified atheists and agnostics.

So if we mean by "atheists" not just those who self-identify as such but those who say they do not believe in God or a universal spirit, atheists got an average of 18.5 questions right. That is well above the national average of 16 questions right, and better than white evangelicals (17.6 correct), but well below both Jews (with 20.5 correct answers on average) and Mormons (with 20.3).

So in this first-ever religious literacy Olympics, Jews earned a gold medal, Mormons a silver and atheists a bronze.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Atheism • Opinion

soundoff (211 Responses)
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  9. Yammo

    Why does the outcome of this survey come as a surprise to anyone?
    The more you educate yourself... The more critical becomes your thinking – which is something the bible can not withstand.

    September 24, 2011 at 7:59 pm |
    • Rembrandt

      The Vastness of the Universe or the infinite grandeur of the Sub Atomic world, you would think would make it almost impossible to have any doubt that there isn't something going on that we cannot comprehend. There is no evidence? Look around you. You are all multi-dimensional spiritual beings having a Human Experience. Intelligence, consciousness, God, The Universe, whatever you want to call it, IT IS YOU. There is no separation. The Big Bang is still going on and it's us. You can't prove otherwise and you can't say there is no God, because nobody is capable of knowing. EVER. The age old argument of God vs Science Theist vs Anti Theist is mute. There is only one religion. That is Love. We are all so very precious and you argue of nothing. Don't you all see?

      September 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  10. Justin

    I have no data to back this, but I presume that if someone were indoctrinated into religion and then escaped from it, they may be more likely to self identify as an atheist or agnostic and still score better than someone never exposed to it in the first place, who might self identify as "nothing in particular." I would also presume that someone never indoctrinated in the first place may have had less interest in studying other religious specificities in an effort to explain inconsistencies. I'd like to see a survey simply grouping and comparing people who believe humans have a soul, vs those who don't believe in a soul.

    June 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Richard S Kaiser

      If one calls "Indoctrination" a Universalism of a Benevolent Belief in Whatever or Whomever I Wholeheartedly Concur, BUT, when Malevolencies tend to Outweigh the Benevolent Fractions of Indoctrinations I would step up to the Plate and attempt Discouraging those whom are are yet on the Fence.

      The Problem I have with Polls are that they are but Numerologies where Numerologists subvert their Figures to the Pleasings of Those Whom who will Pay them, sometimes Handsomely. Many Pollsters are but Moneygrubbers of a Hierarchy that Manifests the Futility of Numbered Faith and is a Problem with a Country's Political Arenas.

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  12. Karl

    I'm confused, So the Atheist/Agnostic score goes down if you lump them together with those who claim "No religion in particular" but still do not consider themselves to be atheist/agnostic, And people who claim to be very much religious but subscribe to a religion that doesn't include the concepts of a "God" or a "soul"?

    So basically you've just tipped a bunch of religions that dont conform to your high standard into the atheist/agnostic category in an attempt to dilute the score? And even then that only knocks them down 1 place putting them in 3rd. Which you consider to be "not so smart", A huge insult to every group that scored lower.

    April 14, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  13. Paulie

    I don't have faith in faith. I don't believe in belief.
    You can call me faithless.
    But, I still cling to hope. And I believe in love.
    And that's faith enough for me.

    January 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  14. serialmom

    Exactly MarkinFL. I've already been to the "Anger at God" article. Silly, silly articles. I will say that it is lovely to see so many other atheists posting though. Awesome to see that there are like-minded individuals around.

    January 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  15. serialmom

    My main problem with the entire subject is the generalization that is so absurd. To equate answering a test about religion correctly (with, by the way, an very small amount of questions which most likely confounds the entire effort,) with smartness or intelligence is laughable. Atheists should probably get double points for knowing anything about a mythology that they don't adhere to. The extrapolation from "knows around 20 answers about religion" to intelligence is ludicrous. I've yet to see anything worthy from Prothero. And, dude....back that camera off that face....back it way off. Thanks.

    January 4, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • MarkinFL

      Well confusing intelligence with specific knowledge fits well with the whole theme of the article which confuses statistics with wishes and atheists and agnostics with some strange category of believers in nothing in particular ( quantify that! ).
      So yes, the first problem with the article was the word "smart" to describe general knowledge of world religions. The fact that I scored 100% on the little online multiple-guess sub-sample of the test is not a testament to my intelligence, just my general knowledge of religions.
      This article has little real meaning. ( see "Anger at god" article for more of the same)

      January 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  16. CyberLew

    Being a non-believer black-belt of of the nth degree I see knowledge of mythological trivia as important as believers see the understanding of the intricacies in the definition of the word theory. If not for the facts that we live in a common culture and histories I would see religious knowledge as a complete waste of time. - But I do love Santa, Kriss Kringle and and the lot of them. I also would like to wish you a merry Saturnalia and and happy Jul.

    January 3, 2011 at 11:18 pm |
  17. Levi

    Atheists know there is no God, despite having no evidence for their claims. They laugh at Christians with scorn for our "hope" and "faith" and talk about how no one needs a savior because we're all basically good...also based on no evidence. Atheists decry the claim of Christianity to having truth exclusive to only believers, without realizing that the claims they make about truth and reality actually are just as exclusive and less factually-based. People are evil, and in need of a savior, and no atheist can make an exclusive claim otherwise without claiming to have a basis for their "objective" truth. At least we have the Bible, not to mention the Holy Spirit, to lead us in our walk of sanctification.
    Even the demons believe there is a God (James 2:19), but atheists are walking in darkness from which they cannot escape from on their own (1 Peter 2:9).

    Relativists believe that everyone is good, and everyone is right, including, apparently, those who don't believe in relativism. That's a confused (and mightily self-defeating) bunch there.

    And btw, hell is a necessity for a loving God. Here goes: God, who is love, created man with a free will. God, who is just, allows us to make mistakes but requires payment for them. The loving God came down and sacrificed the essence of Himself for this messed up people, the entire world, not just the church, and has paid the price for only those who choose to follow Him. Because He cannot force us to love or believe in Him, there must be a place separate from Him and His redeeming act on the cross for those who have sinned against Him. And all have sinned (Romans 3:23), and thus, those who reject His infinitely loving act deserve to be apart from this holy God. Hell is a consequence of God's loving act in giving us a choice of whom to follow–God, nothing, ourselves, the universe, or pagan gods. God is love, and He gives the gift of eternal life for free to anyone, atheist, murderer, rapist, et al., who asks for it with a repentant heart. I pray for the people on this blog, that you would open yourselves to who God really is.

    January 3, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      As is usual, a believer has it back asswards. You are making the extraordinary claim that you have a sky daddy, so the onus is on you to provide supporting evidence. Your book of magic has been shown to be full of errors and the work of man. Without it, you have nothing. If believers can't provide convincing evidence, they are wrong and atheists are right. Please note, *I* am not asking for any evidence or proof of your imaginary friends and tribal myths – I am 100% convinced there is none.

      January 3, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  18. Holly G

    Just some nice thoughts from the Dali Lama

    January 3, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  19. Robert

    athiests think they're so smart but in reality they are a bunch of fools

    January 3, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Michael Lewandowski

      Thor is going to murder you all! No but seriously there is no evidence that a deity made the universe. Seriously people used to think 'deity' would make the sun go up and down. Just because we don't yet know doesn't mean some sky fairy did it... Also why would a deity make the universe rate of expansion such that we could never travel to the end of it? (The universe expands near the speed of light) 99.9% there is a scientific reason.

      February 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  20. MarkinFL

    Oh lordy! I just took the sample quiz and its a shame anyone got less than 80+ %. I did not miss any of them, though one of the questions I only got right by process of elimination. Was the telephone survey multiple choice? If not I understand missing more of them since multiple guess jogs the memory and limits possible wrong answers. I really hope the telephone survey just asked for the answers cold.

    BTW, self-identify as athiest. And yes the person who wrote the article completely blew the statistics since the overall average has to be greater than or equal to the lowest group score. Also willy nilly adding two groups belong together because you THINK they belong together is just the kind of irrational thinking that leads to believing in magic.

    January 3, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.