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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. Muneef

    The oath.the swear by that is taken by all country legals and financials afairs not  forgeting that you told the world in your currancy;
    In God we trust? And now you tell us that your majorty are ;
    – agnostics.
    – atheists.
    – seculars.
    – infidels.
    – miscreants.
    – polytheists.
    – pagans.
    What ever else you have ?
    Do not realy understand how in God we trust when you say there is no God to trust or take or make an oath with ?
    Who are we trusting in you now if not God?? Suggest in such a case if your majority are no longer religious wonder if Muslims money invested in the named country considered halal or should look for Islamic countries to invest in?

    October 6, 2010 at 10:00 pm |
    • Muneef

      @Peter &All,
      Kindly read Sura 51: 47 to 60
      That's what we are here for and be warned. May God Guid you. amen.

      October 7, 2010 at 11:45 am |
    • Muneef

      To believers.
      Quran Sura 09:111 to 112
      That is what is God requiring us as believers to be doing

      October 7, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  2. Peter

    I don't beleive in a god or any form of supernatural being or beings. I don't beleive there is a soul. I don't beleive there is anyform of life after death. I do beleive other people have strong feelings otherwise. I don't have answers to questions that religions say they do have answers to.
    It is very simple really.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:16 pm |
    • Muneef

      @Peter.
      Well strong feeling you have are not leading you to the right path of belief,we have not came here waste for no purpose every creation has a role in life and came waste just life was created even more accurately than a Swiss watch..!

      October 7, 2010 at 8:30 am |
    • Muneef

      @Peter.
      Kindly check Quran Sura 03:190 to 195
      Sura 23:115.
      Nothing was created for nothing.

      October 7, 2010 at 11:04 am |
  3. Cthulance

    "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."

    In other words, those most willing to self-identify as atheists or agnostics did the best.

    October 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm |
    • NL

      Again, you have to remember that a lot of the folks who answered 'no' where those people who were never seriously raised religious, or taught religion at all, and thus never developed much of an interest in religion because it was never part of their personal lives. A lot, and maybe most, declared atheists were once religious and only rejected those beliefs after studying the topic.

      October 6, 2010 at 11:56 pm |
    • Cthulance

      @NL, I agree. I think "studying the topic" is an excellent eye-opener and it helps explain why those most willing to self-identify as atheists and agnostics did so well on this.

      October 7, 2010 at 1:12 am |
    • NL

      Cthulance-
      Yes, you have to study religion, but you have to study it objectively. It's believer's bias not only towards their own faith, but also against rival faiths that blocks a lot of the information from 'sinking in.'

      To use a computer analogy believers have programming (their faith) and they have been taught that all outside programming is a virus that will ruin their programming. So they put up fire walls ( ignore opposing views ), don't let others plug in their flash drives ( don't get too friendly with people outside their faith ) and are discouraged from exploring the net ( all knowledge ) for fear of having their programming replaced ( converting ) or completely ruined ( becoming a non-believer ).

      Of course, it's hard to be objective about your own faith when you are raised to love your savior, and to believe that he loves you too. Love clouds people's better judgment.

      October 7, 2010 at 10:39 am |
  4. Faithless Forrest

    Regardless of who knows more, atheist or theists, is Leviticus chapter 25 versus 45-46 a good moral guide?

    I encourage everyone to read the bible. ALL of it. No picking and choosing.

    Faithless Forrest.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:52 pm |
  5. abdrewpd

    I took the quiz, I am atheist, and I scored better than 93% of the public. Go me. Now I'm going back to studying chemistry. I have a test coming up that actually matters..

    October 6, 2010 at 8:46 pm |
  6. The Professor

    @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...

    Can't you do better then that? For the name "seek and ye shall find logic and truth" thats a pretty funny comment..Not logical, and certainly not truthful! But, I am glad you can figure out my "speed" by comparing me (whom you know nothing about,lol) to a
    outdated television sitcom. Watch out, your age is showing amongst other things!

    October 6, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  7. A Theist

    What is the Stigma attached to Atheism? People might think that you cannot hold rational and completely irrational thoughts in your head simultaneously?

    October 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm |
  8. The Professor

    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...

    Peace...

    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...

    Peace...

    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...

    Peace...

    The questions of "who has the true meaning" and" What is the true meaning... all true followers of Jesus C-h-r-is-t have the truthfulness of his full word. Period.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
    • peace2all

      @The Professor

      So, you are actually claiming that *you* in fact know the truth, as do other *true* followers of jc. And how do you know who the true followers really are....?

      As I have talked to many and witnessed many a posting here, claiming that 'they' are in fact the true followers of JC, and have the truth.

      So, who should I believe.... Your truth, someone else who says they have the 'full truth' ....? There are hundreds of christian denominations claiming to have the 'full and real truth' you... see...?

      Looking forward to your further elaborations and this discussion....

      Thank you @The Professor

      Peace...

      October 7, 2010 at 1:24 am |
    • peace2all

      @The Professor

      Quick question..... Did you 'mean' to actually cut/paste my post to you 3 times.....? Or, what that a mistake...?

      If you did mean to do it, please advise as to your intent...?

      Thanks...

      Peace...

      October 7, 2010 at 1:27 am |
  9. J. Baker

    This article is the single most uplifting report of the day. It says there are more non-believers in this country, than the polls show, because they're asking for "Atheists". That is sincerely awesome!

    October 6, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  10. Keeping ItReal

    I think its hilarious you all believe in a book written by a bunch of people on shroom tea. People will believe anything and people in power will use it to control those that they can.

    October 6, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  11. buddy

    Grasping at straws here. The most interesting conclusion of the Pew Forum survey is that the most fervent "religious" groups are (not coincidentally) among the LEAST knowledgeable about religion. The Olympic analogy is surprisingly astute; and, no matter how you swing it, those who proclaim to be the most devout and religious are distant "losers" in the race of religious comprehension.

    October 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
  12. JA

    So Jews and Mormons scored higher than atheists/agnostics. But all three scored on average higher than evangelicals.

    Doesn't change anything. Atheists/agnostics still scored higher than evangelicals. I also liked his Olympic metaphor...but in the end, the evangelicals took home no medal.

    October 6, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
  13. Joe

    He just took the lowest performing group and added them to the Atheist group to bring their average down. They did not identify themselves as athiest, therefore they do not belong in that group, to arbitrarily move them over to a different group for what seems like the sake of writing an article to promo your book is pretty weak. I mean, contradicting the headline that atheists are more religiously informed is going to get you some traffic, but you are being dishonest about the results. I could just as easily have pulled up any low average or down any high average using the same kind of invalid arguments you have. You can not just ignore the fact they did not check the athiest box.

    October 6, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
  14. ruth

    I just took the quiz and scored a 97%. The quiz is simply a quiz of your understanding of facts about Regligious figures through history. And such knowldege means you have studied various religions but aren't necessarily 'smart' or even full of any 'faith'. So, the whole premis of this article is simply inane.

    October 6, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  15. Leo14

    To get Smarter dive in to inhale knoweldge and debate right.
    http://www.india-gujarat.info/Spread_of_Islam#

    October 6, 2010 at 7:12 pm |
  16. Dave

    That's a lot of word-twisting and jumping through hoops to make atheists appear not-so-smart after all. This atheist just scored 100% on the little quiz...though I'll admit that the last answer was pure luck.

    October 6, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
  17. Brian Dodge

    Prothero stretches the definition of atheist to include people who are too stupid to know whether or not they are atheist, who only got 18.7 questions correct, averages their score with that of self professed atheists who got 20.9 questions correct, and gets 18.5 as the result. Clearly, math isn't his strong suit – (20.9+18.7)/2 = 19.8, not 18.5

    October 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • averageJoe

      This calculation is not correct either. One can only apply 50 percent weighting (that is, add and divide by 2) if both groups are equal in size. Otherwise each group's score must be weighted by the following fraction: (the number of individuals in that group / sum total of the number of individuals in the two groups). In any case the lower bound still 18.7 and the upper bound is 20.9 as I previously stated.

      October 6, 2010 at 8:35 pm |
  18. meh

    Apparently, a professor or religion like yourself is not "smart" enough to distinguish between being "smart" and being "knowledgeable".

    October 6, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  19. The Truth

    Nothing in this incohherent rambling could even be construed as a rational thought. I haven't seen this much distortion of the truth since my remote got stuck on Fox news. Oh and by the way our country is a large majority christian (and so is the author of this semantic folly) and by his own admission christians didn't even place in this so called olympics. Christians no less about there own religion that non-christians and you have the gull to call us "not so smart" HILARIOUS

    October 6, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • NL

      "my remote got stuck on Fox news."

      Now that might be a Hell terrible enough to pull a Pascal's wager to try and avoid.

      October 6, 2010 at 6:36 pm |
  20. Muneef

    If might help kindly read the following verses from the Quran:
    Sura 04:163 to 167
    Sura 04:170 to 172
    You would like to read this as well:
    Sura 71:01 to 28
    God bless.

    October 6, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
    • Anna

      Whats your profession? Are you an imam?

      October 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm |
    • Getting To Know the Muslims

      Professional TROLL – likely on the CNN Payroll.

      October 6, 2010 at 10:22 pm |
    • Muneef

      No I am not imam at all I am just an ordinary Muslim brought up on belief and defend his belief and I am not in the USA nor I work for any CNN or any party else.
      Kindly since you have asked you can you go to Quran sura 03:190 to 195. This will help you to understand who,what I am. By the way my Quran is in my mobile with words search facility if that what you might been wondering?

      October 7, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • Muneef

      @Anna.
      @Frank
      @Jenie
      @Peter
      Check as well Sura 17:12 to 25

      October 7, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • Muneef

      @Anna.
      Kindly read Sura 51: 47 to 60
      That's what we are here for and be warned. May God Guid you. amen.

      October 7, 2010 at 11:48 am |
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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.