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)
  1. Dawn

    Ummm, near as I can tell, no one did all that well. The highest scoring category still only answered an average of 20.9 questions correctly, out of 32. Isn't that a failing grade?

    October 6, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
    • >:

      Not in organic chem 🙂

      October 6, 2010 at 3:10 pm |
  2. brad

    An observation: first we hear that God is a sky fairy or Tinkerbell, or any other monicker that will bring Her down to a small enough size that She can be rediculed. Then we learn that all believers in such "nonsense" are idiots. Next we're informed that atheists/agnostics know more about this "nonsense" than believers. It begs the question: why spend so much time studying nonsense to the point you know more nonsense than believers?

    October 6, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Because one needs to know the specifics of said nonsense in order to offer a rational, factual refutation.
      Please note, I am not referring to those being deliberately contentious by offering ridicule instead of debate. Whether Deist or Atheist, a troll is a troll...

      October 6, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • brad

      @DocVestibule: point taken. BTW, I need some practical knowledge. What in cyberspace is a troll?

      October 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
    • civiloutside

      A troll, in internet parlance, is someone who makes posts for the sole purpose of insulting/offending other readers rather than to actually participate in discussion of the subject on which they are posting. The popular phrase "Don't feed the trolls" is a reminder not to reply to them in kind, since doing so only feeds their need to seek attention by behaving like spoiled children.

      October 7, 2010 at 7:49 am |
  3. GodIsForImbeciles

    [Yawn] Another meaningless diatribe against atheists from an idiot who believes in Tinkerbell.

    October 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm |
  4. Mark Causey

    Who cares? If I claimed that there was an invisible pink unicorn in the trunk of my car and wrote a book about my beliefs and why the unicorn was the creator of the universe, would you waste your time studying the book? Of course not! That is why I don't study nor care about your invisible friend that has done nothing to ease the burdens we must live through. May I assume that you are Christian and you worship a dead man hanging on a cross? If you are you are an idiot!

    October 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
    • >:

      Hey, at least the pink unicorns dont protect child molesters. And they smell like cotton candy.

      October 6, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  5. >:

    What the heck? Is it just me who thinks his description of his new groups makes no sense? How the heck did he come up with 18.5 average when the only numbers I see are 18.7 and 20.9?

    Does that mean he included the "nothing in particular" group with the atheists?-otherwise it is mathematically impossible. What a poor job of explaining where these new numbers came from.

    Regardless, people who know the most about religion (atheist/agnostic) chose not to believe it. The ones that identified as "nothing in particular" means little as far as their thoughts on the existence of a deity (you could still believe in a god without organized religion, or you could be spiritual) so they should not be combined.

    Furthermore, you claim that people who simultaneously answered that "they were not atheists" and "don’t believe in a god or a universal spirit” are indeed atheists despite claiming they are not. Your explanations for them not identifying as atheists: they are scarred to due to “stigmas” attached to the term "atheist" on an internet survey!? –That, my friend, is speculation at its finest and has no use except to doctor the numbers in your favor. What about the people who are religious by definition that don’t believe in a god or universal spirit?-Buddhists for example? What about more than one god and/or universal spirit? You just made up a justification to include this group with the self proclaimed atheists to bring the numbers down.

    To me this looks like an utter failure. More like a desperate attempt to bring down the atheist/agnostic group.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  6. CSnord

    For many athiests and agnostics, not believing in, or being ambivialent about God is itself a belief system. But some of us have actually studied the topic. I studied the worlds religions years ago to see what they had to offer compared with rational thinking. Consequently, I took the survey and got 30 out of 32 right and I'm definitely a non-believer. In my case though, that simply means that I don't believe in God, but unlike an athiest, I do not "believe" there is no God. The fact is that I don't know, but the overwhelming preponderance of evidence indicates there is no God. Still, one of the best ways I've ever heard to describe religion is:

    "I contend that we are all athiests, I simply believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you do not believe in all the other gods, then you will know why I do not believe in yours."

    For me, the universe of knowledge is divided into two categories: that which I know, and that which I do not know. Facts freely flow between the two categories in both directions. Some day I may know difinitively about the existence of God, but, then again, maybe not. I'm fine with it either way. In the meantime, if there is some omnipotent all-powerful sky fairy - he doesn't care whether I believe in him (her? it?) or not. I'll live my life the best way I can and try not to hurt anyone. If that is not good enough for the fairy, so be it.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • brad

      "Some day I may know difinitively about the existence of God." Before we "know" whether a supreme intelligence exists, I think we first have to ask "what is the nature of knowledge itself." If we define knowledge as only how our brains interpret the information our senses bring to us, then God can't be proved. We look for God as though He/She were a microbe. We don't engage our entire selves in the search, only the brain and senses. Seems the human psyche has more to say about the subject than, say, a math formula. But the psyche is too close to us to examine for evidence of God. We can't be both under a microscope and looking through it at the same time. St. Augustine said " I cannot grasp all that I am."

      October 6, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Please forgive the confrontational slant to the quotation below – the point is valid, but the language a mite harsh.
      "Don't appeal to mercy to God the Father up in the sky, little man, because he's not at home and never was at home, and couldn't care less. What you do with yourself, whether you are happy or unhappy– live or die– is strictly your business and the universe doesn't care. In fact you may be the universe and the only cause of all your troubles. But, at best, the most you can hope for is comradeship with comrades no more divine (or just as divine) as you are. So quit sniveling and face up to it– 'Thou art God!'"[Robert A. Heinlein Oct. 21, 1960]

      October 6, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
    • brad


      Confrontational slant forgiven. Lots to think about in Heinlein's quote ! And I certainly believe that human nature is the cause of all our troubles. Example: our brains learn to split the atom. Then human nature uses that knowledge to incinerate Hiroshima (I'm an old guy). And of course the universe doesn't care about this "little man". What's more worthy of study is that this little man cares about the universe.

      October 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm |
  7. brad

    I think an appropriate test would ask how much atheists/agnostics know about evolution, math, physics, and logic. Another test would be how able these people are to really apply reason. After all, logic and reason are a mental discipline. This could tell us whether or not atheists/agnostics are blindly genuflecting before their favorite scientists.

    October 6, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • CSnord

      Good point. The results of this survey are affected far more by the educational level of the participants than it is by their belief systems.

      October 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • pancho gambizi

      Test atheist / agnostic....No such thing! Do you know how much money the country pours into converting this breed? They pour millions of tax dollars alone to have scientist prove that nothing exist, Come up with a theory & teach it to children as fact? Meanwhile, people of faith compromising their belief because the wisdom of man. How can we begin to wrap our mind around GOD!?!? When Jesus was asked about heaven by intellects his response was, " How can i begin to speak to you about heavenly things when you still do not understand earthly things" i see that in this topic, atheist speaking on things they know nothing about. Believe me, those test scores will get them in heaven. An atheist is a silly human who believes he is too smart too fall for the GOD thing, therefore becomes stupid enough to fall for anything. Now Brad if if you are struggling with your origin? Do not look for an answer in a person who believes your ancestors were monkeys?@#@? Know that you were wonderfully created a human with a purpose, not an accident.

      October 7, 2010 at 5:28 am |
    • peace2all


      Interesting question. And.... I think that you would find that a good majority of atheists and agnostics would tend to score 'higher' in those respective disciplines....i.e.... quantum mechanics, critical thinking, math, etc.. As they are things that we (generalizing here for discussion purposes) are adept in and have knowledge.

      Just as we tended to score higher in the comparative religion quiz.


      October 7, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
  8. maddawg

    again....HUGE LMAO's @ all you lemming cultist, man-made god worsihpers.

    NOTE: you don't have to be smart to know gods are for the weak minded, gullible and those that can't think for themselves.

    oh you disagree you lemming follower? then tell me again....WHICH god is the right one? oh, yours is?!?!.....now it all makes sense!

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah....i can't stop laughing at how gullible and naive you are!!


    October 6, 2010 at 9:21 am |
  9. DB

    I have a slight problem with the story. The atheist/agnostic/do-not-believe-in-God self-identified as three separate groups. The author has decided that this self-identification is irrelevant and groups these separate categories as one to bring down the overall score of the group, that it apparently bothers him, rated so high. I think he would need to break down the Jewish and Mormon totals into liberal, conservative, orthodox Jewish groups and liberal, conservative, orthodox Mormon groups to really get a clearer picture of religious knowledge across these different factions. As it is...he's seems to be playing with the statistics just to support the view he wants to champion.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:17 am |
    • NL

      Yes, and what's more he can't even master third grade math in averaging the scores of these groups.

      See yesterday's post by 'smart?'

      October 6, 2010 at 10:16 am |
  10. radicalaggro

    This doesn't even make sense. Why would people who are closet atheists be afraid to self identify in an online survery? They wouldn't be. So the fact that you had to lump them all together to doctor your numbers is bogus. If these people were atheists they would have no reason not to say so. Are they afraid to be judged by someone or something if they don't believe? This is silly. Many of these poeple who did not put themselves in the atheist category but say they have no beliefs may just be people who consider themselves spiritual. They are less likely to be educated on religious issues if they are not even commited to one side or the other. These are most likely people that just do not care on way or another. To try and equate them to atheists is just ignorant. Plus, there have already been multiple studies on similar subjects. Be it IQ or general intellegence, atheists tend to be smarter than their religious conterparts. No matter how much you come up with fake statistics you cannot adjust the results of almost every study on this topic. Get over it.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:49 am |
    • NL

      Some of them may be 'spiritual' as you say, but some of them may just have grown up in a non-religious family. If they did then they may not consider themselves atheists because they didn't go through the experience of studying religions and concluding that their supernatural elements are baseless.

      October 6, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  11. Bridget

    I just took the quiz and scored 93%. I missed 1 out of 15. I am a non-denominational, charismatic, evangelical Christian. I think the poll did not accurately represent Christianity in America.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:24 am |
    • maddawg

      lol...a 93% on knowledge of false...EVERYTHING? and you acutally posted it as if to brag about being so lemmingized?!?

      ok...that's a true lemming.

      you seem to fall in the proper percentile though....they say 95% of the world population believes in cults and the gods they worship.....that's what i call the "Five Niners".....you know...lthe people that are 99.999% imbecile.

      now if we can just get them all to lemmingly follow their gods off a cliff.....this world would be a true paradise! 🙂

      October 6, 2010 at 9:25 am |
    • Ross

      You're confusing anecdotes with statistics. In a nutshell, you're rejecting the study because the average Christian did not get the same score as you. In effect, you're saying that, because the survey Christianity as a whole does not reflect your level of knowledge, it must be incorrect.

      How self-centered is that?

      Then again, self-centric mindsets fit easily in the mold of a god who created the entire universe for one species of primate, which you just happen to be a part of...

      October 13, 2010 at 10:29 pm |
  12. Dave

    I would simply suggest to you all to read "Letter to A Christian Nation", by Sam Harris (2007).
    Simple, logical, and totally destroys any argument that believers put forth.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:52 am |
    • Keith

      Amen to that.

      October 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  13. Hah!

    Article by troll found to draw other trolls. Snarky trollbait article sticks out tongue to say "nyah nyah, I can write whatever I want! You atheists are just jealous of my religulous snarkyness! So there!"

    October 6, 2010 at 2:00 am |
  14. Reality

    An update on Judaism and Christianity in less than 500 words or how to skip Professor Prothero's class yet earn three college credits because you will now know all you need to know about these religions: (only for new members)

    1. origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment.

    2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus' sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan se-cts.

    The 30% of the NT that is "authentic Jesus" like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus' case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hit-ti-tes, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.


    For added "pizz-azz", Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the "pew people" to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the "fil-icider".

    Current RCC problems:

    Pedo-ph-iliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

    3. Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of "pretty wingie thingie" visits and "prophecies" for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

    Current problems:

    Adu-lterous preachers, "propheteering/ profiteering" evangelicals and atonement theology.

    Now that you have finished reading this update, you have earned three credits towards your Liberal Arts degree at Boston U.

    October 6, 2010 at 12:05 am |
  15. Steve Jones

    I'm not sure why the headline conflates smart with knowledge of religion. There's a lot more to being smart than knowing a few facts about one area of human existence. I know a lot of people who can reel off fact after fact about football which I suspect is inversely correlated with intelligence.

    However, the original survey certainly supports the notion that those that most strongly identify themselves as non-believers, atheists/agnostics do seem to know, on average, the most about religion. That's very possibly because they do actually think about it and have done some research. The much looser non-affiliated category maybe just don't worry about it.

    October 5, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
  16. The Professor

    Well, it depends on what const-i-tues as "intelligence".
    I find while atheists may know more about it, they sure don't "understand" it. Mayby they would do better to quiz them on that. Most don't understand the bible, even though they may know "about" it, or what it says. Don't ask them to explain the contents. May know some history, but again, don't know what things said mean, or what the mission of the apostles were, etc.

    October 5, 2010 at 9:19 pm |
    • NL

      Considering how many Christian sects are out there I doubt if many Christians really understand the Bible, or can explain it's contents.

      October 5, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
    • peace2all

      @The Professor

      Understood...... However, if you start getting into what the bible's *true meanings* or *true understandings*.....Well, you have basically opened the door as to......' WHO' has the *true meaning*.....and *WHAT* is the *true meaning*

      From their you have opened the door to giving due credit to any believer's interpretation, .....unless somehow YOU are claiming *truth*....?

      Please advise.... as I am curious to hear your response on this...


      October 6, 2010 at 2:22 am |
    • seek and ye shall find logic and truth

      Go back to Gilligan's Island, "Professor". I think making things out of coconuts is more your speed...

      October 6, 2010 at 2:30 am |
    • civiloutside

      You do recognize that there's a difference between understanding and believing, I hope?

      October 6, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Cason

      Two things...

      One: What do you mean by "understand"? I'm sensing you mean "believe". And of course everyone who believes something thinks they "understand" more. Which makes your point invalid. Also, it's arrogant to assume that atheists don't understand.

      Two: If theists don't KNOW what's in the bible, how can you expect them to "understand". Knowledge first, then wisdom.

      Nice try though.

      October 6, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  17. Iqbal khan


    October 5, 2010 at 9:10 pm |
  18. Eric G.

    What percentage of atheists count Halloween as their favorite holiday? I know I do. I think we should all get a day off work for Halloween............ and the Monday after the Superbowl.

    October 5, 2010 at 8:47 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Eric G.

      NOW your talking.... Halloween .... ' and' Monday after the Superbowl...... praise be..! 🙂


      October 6, 2010 at 2:18 am |
  19. Iqbal khan

    Check this out also watch the other two parts

    October 5, 2010 at 8:44 pm |
    • Eric G.

      Sorry, too many assumptions. Statements completely lack logic. All of his arguments are based in speculation. This man would be crushed in a debate.

      October 5, 2010 at 8:51 pm |
  20. hippie

    There are alot of people out there who, like myself, identify ourselves as SBNR ( spiritual, but not religious). Yet I had to click on atheist/ agnostic because SBNR wasn't a choice. Speaking for only myself, I believe in a Divine Spirit.(which I call God for lack of a better word) I DO NOT believe in the dogma that has been added for the sole purpose of contolling the masses. I believe in 1 spirit, many paths. I don't believe it matters to God what path I take to him/ her/ it, just as long as I get to him/ her/ it. And nothing any religious nut, (christian jewish, muslim etc.) says can change what I believe to be the truth for myself. . . peace

    October 5, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
    • >:

      out of curiosity, what made you arrive at that conclusion? Any real reasons? Or is that just how you would want it to be if you had the choice?

      October 6, 2010 at 3:13 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.