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. Erik

    The "woman" doth protest too much, methinks.

    December 28, 2010 at 2:13 am |
  2. Sasha the Educated Aetheist

    I don't think your (Stephen Prothero) definition of Aetheist is an aetheist (one who actively disbelieves in any god): you're talking about Angostics (those who have no particular opinion on the matter or believe without a particular church affilliation). Agnostics may have scored lower because they really don't much care. Aetheists scored high because every last time they mention their convictions (too ironic to call it a belief), they have to defend them.

    December 27, 2010 at 10:08 am |

    May the Good Lord Bless and keep you all. Why speak about something you don't believe in. I've been reading the comments and wondering why more Christians have not responded. Now, I think I may know the answer. As a true Christian and believer in God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, my love for ALL of you is not daunted by your disbelief in the God I serve. You all have the right to believe what you believe. That's the beauty of Christ, he gives us freewill. Your belief or unbelief doesn't change the fact that He exists and that the Word is true. Name-calling and criticizing is unnecessary. If everyone agrees that love and peace are what it's all about, why are we arguing? I love you all, and God loves you, too. He didn't and doesn't need me to speak on His behalf, but I stick up for Him whom I love. Again, neither my belief nor your unbelief thwarts His existence. He is my Rock and my Redeemer, and I wish you all blessings of grace and mercy from Him who sits on high. Be blessed.

    December 26, 2010 at 3:25 pm |
  4. John

    YOU all have been fooled your entire lives. THERE ARE NO ELEPHANTS! I am 45 years old, and I have never seen an elephant in my living room. THEY DON'T EXIST! If there were a creature that large, the planet would run out of food. The elephant you see on TV is a trick! Governments uses elephants to scare people into doing what they want.
    DON'T BE FOOLED! Join me in The American Elephant Atheist Society. Don't let governments push you around. Freedom from elephants is the smart choice.

    December 26, 2010 at 1:22 am |
    • MarkinFL

      And people wonder that Christians scored lower. Sheesh.

      January 3, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  5. Alan

    Explain to me why this is any more significant than, for example, stratifying knowledge of the Star Wars storyline by religious identification? I took the quiz, earned a near perfect score; but it's still nonsense.

    December 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm |
  6. malcolm x

    I would be disgusted with any atheist getting any part of any religious test correct, we don't waste our time with fiction.

    December 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm |
    • euler

      Disagree. Face it, religiously motivated art and other religion-related things are a part of our culture, even if the religion itself is a load of nonsense. You may like this story here: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/563745-forgive-me-spirit-of-science

      December 24, 2010 at 6:47 am |
    • independentatheist

      Back when I was in school, "above average" was pretty good... but I guess when it comes to an outcast group like atheists, any score less than perfect is seen as some sort of fatal flaw. I would certainly like to know more about religion but I'm just a little bit busy working full time while studying and teaching music. Besides, I don't plan on making a career out of being an atheist so why should I be obligated to know scripture in which I do not believe? It might be good for the occasional argument but I simply have better things to do. I find spending time with my family and friends to be more rewarding than trying to decode the bible.

      December 26, 2010 at 1:08 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Many athiests were raised in religious households and ended up studying their religion more since it was not making any sense to them and they tried to reconcile it with reality. When reality wins you end up with an atheist with a significant knowledge of religion. What you actually know about religion does not particularly reflect your intelligence, though your intelligence level probably does affect your knowledge and understanding of all things religious or not.

      January 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  7. thinkpoint

    I hope there is no God. Finally, an honest atheist: http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2008/12/03/i-hope-there-is-no-god-thomas-nagel/

    October 14, 2010 at 12:11 am |
  8. mk

    I think that Atheists people are smart and they do think rationally about life. I think that most of the time they do not act purposefully with their intelligence. Of course, they might even say that they are, by trying to shut the Christians up (not likely going to happen any time soon). It's so annoying when people don't clarify what they mean by "smart". Obviously, Americans are obsessed with being smart but what kind of smart? Logical-mathematical kind of smart, something that is associate with "Scientific thinking". The truth is not everyone is born to be smart in this area. Every one does possess this (logical-mathematical) in them, but if people brags how "smart" they are (especially for those who value logical-mathematical), then I think it's a shame to value in something that only makes you walk in circle.

    October 13, 2010 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Rance Moest

    So a corrupt, biased and bigoted 'professor" whose life is based on disseminating fairy tales bends over backwards to denigrate Atheism. How is that news?

    For the record, this atheist received a perfect score on the Pew test.

    October 13, 2010 at 9:10 am |
  10. Kevin

    Unbelievable. CNN you need to let the 'Professor' go. He's stealing from you writing this tripe.

    October 12, 2010 at 9:00 pm |
  11. LH

    While your data analysis is lacking, for the sake of argument I will take it at face value. As an atheist, I am still proud to belong to a group that knows more about the Bible than those Evangelical Christians who profess to live their life by it.

    October 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  12. Steve g

    The worlds biggest joke is simply one word; religion
    As a crutch to make peope feel it is OK to die.
    I died and was revived, sorry folks no joy there.You are gone period.

    October 11, 2010 at 7:16 am |
    • John

      Greetings fellow non-believer! THERE IS NO ELEPHANT! Join the American Elephant Atheist Society! Freedom from elephant is the only smart choice.

      December 26, 2010 at 1:45 am |
    • MarkinFL

      I saw God in the monkey cage at the zoo. What does that mean?

      January 3, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  13. Usarnaem

    Your writing style is atrocious. I can't believe this drivel was actually published on an established news website.

    October 8, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  14. William VI

    Hmm, well i would think that a person who hath no faith ought not to know as much as a person who believes. I agree with 'civiloutside', I think that judging a person's intellect over their knowledge in one area is completely ridiculous. I grew up, learning the commandments and sins, but have since grown distant. I wouldn't consider myself an atheist, but i do not think that any religion is 100% correct, therefore i have no religion, keeping any and all thoughts and options available for my leisurely perusing. Nobody has the right to tell us we are wrong, who says we are anyway? I think we're right, in that no religion is the right one, but that instead they set an example for us to follow, to be pure in heart and mind, to do the right thing. Anyway, i want to put one more thing out there, don't make stories over something that you don't feel you are right about, it might offend people!

    October 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • NL

      William VI-
      You said "Hmm, well i would think that a person who hath no faith ought not to know as much as a person who believes."

      Plenty of atheists, myself included, once had faith every bit as real and deep as any believer out there. We know what it's like to have faith then, but eventually we came to realize that that faith was misplaced on beliefs that really have no rational basis.

      October 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm |
  15. civiloutside

    It strikes me that this survey is being widely misinterpreted. It's basic World Religions type stuff, and doesn't dig into any given religion to any depth. It'd be hard to claim, from performance on this particular test, that atheists/agnostics actually know more about Christianity than Christians do (as I've seen many people seeming to claim). After all, about 3/4 of the survey is about non-Christian religions. If your focus is on your own religion, naturally you aren't necessarily going to know a lot about others and you will probably do poorly on this survey.

    That being said, the author has engaged in both faulty math and faulty logic, apparently in an effort to bring down the atheist/agnostic score so that they are below some of the religious groupings. Not believing in a singular God does not make you atheist – there are pantheists, animists, and all other kinds of -ists out there that are still religious without believing in a singular God. Also, "knowledgeable within a single subject area" and "smart" are not the same – whoever wrote the headline to this article is simply trolling.

    October 7, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  16. The Professor

    See how any other "Gods" live up to Jesus Christ.


    October 7, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • NL

      This does not read like any scholarly work I've ever read. It's whole argument seems to be "They come incredibly close, but none of the other ancient myths of dying and rising gods, miracle workers, the mystery religions and other major gods match Jesus exactly. So... Jesus must have been the son of God who died for our sins, Hallelujah!!"

      One question, is this 'research' published in any scholarly periodical, or is it just unabashed Christian apologetics?

      October 7, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • peace2all

      @The Professor

      I looked at it too, and I must say I am with NL on his assessment.

      Again, @The Professor, thank you for the ongoing discussion.


      October 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  17. The Professor


    @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...?



    No, it was an accident. I did not see anyhting post up, and consequently hit it 3 times. Sorry about that! Peace!

    October 7, 2010 at 11:28 am |
    • peace2all

      @The Professor

      Thank you for responding to that, as I in all of the thousands of posts, had never seen that happen before, where the same post within a post got posted 3 times. That was a mouthful...!



      October 7, 2010 at 1:47 pm |
  18. Poppy

    I scored 14 out of 15, these questions are basic stuff, Im shocked people did so poorly on this

    October 7, 2010 at 9:28 am |
  19. Landothedead

    I'm curious how you got an average of 18.5 questions right for atheists by averaging the 18.7 right for 'non-believers' and the 20.9 for self-identified atheists. Shouldn't the average of two numbers be somewhere between both, not lower than either?

    October 7, 2010 at 9:15 am |
    • >:

      I noticed and posted about the same thing. Even if his math does check out somehow, he did an awful job of explaining where those numbers came from. Also, he inappropriately combined groups, that didn’t belong together, to doctor the numbers. -A failure in my book. At least he could have back up his numbers with a decent explanation so we didn’t just have to take his word for it.

      October 7, 2010 at 11:22 am |
    • Iqbal khan


      October 9, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  20. Hank

    I would probably have to answer that I am Agnostic, though I don't like the sound of that word. From my point of view, it's not so much about adopting those beliefs, but just being interested in how others believe. It's all over the media and religious channels, as well as plenty of literature on religion. So I got a 73% score, I think in part because I like to look at the spectrum of religions and do not just focus on one. And the test covered more than just one religion. I'm sure I would fall behind in a test based on only, say Judaism, with Jews. Or a test on only Islam, comparing my knowledge to Muslims, I'm sure I'd fall behind them as well.

    October 7, 2010 at 1:27 am |
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