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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than believers, survey finds

Atheists generally know more about religion than the faithful, according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life that has garnered considerable attention.  Atheists and agnostics scored highest on the organization's religious knowledge test, with Jews and Mormons in second and third place, respectively.

The survey asked over 3,400 Americans 32 questions relating to various world religions and overall religious knowledge. On average, participants answered only half of the questions accurately, with many participants answering even questions about their own faiths incorrectly.

Those who identified themselves as atheists or agnostics answered 20.9 questions correctly, while Jewish participants answered 20.5 correctly and Mormons gave 20.3 correct answers on average.

"What this survey shows without question is that students should take more courses in the [Department of Religion]," Kevin Dunn, chair of the Department of Religion, said.

Witticisms aside, Dunn pointed out that this study is not simply a reflection of the participants' religion but of their knowledge as a whole.

"An important, if not surprising, finding of the survey was that those who knew most about religion also had the most general knowledge," he said. "So the most, and the most accurate, information belongs to the best educated, most curious part of the populace."

Senior David Johnson, president of Tufts' Freethought Society (TFS), also noted the relationship between general and religious education.

"More than anything, the study demonstrates a correlation between education and religious knowledge as well as non-belief," he said.

Both students and educators highlighted the importance of a better religious education for the general population.

"Although the level of knowledge revealed by the survey doesn't seem more shocking to me than similar surveys of, for instance, Americans' understanding of world geography, it is still lamentably low for atheist, Jewish, Mormon, Catholic and Protestant respondents alike," Dunn said. "And one doesn't need to look around very long to realize how important a broad understanding of religion is in today's world."

Sophomore Alexa Stevens, TFS's secretary, agreed.

"[The survey] shows how necessary religious education is when religion is so widespread," she said. "Given the monumental impact of religion in today's society, knowing about it is paramount. This poll unveils the fact that many are religious without knowing the full history of their and other belief systems. Many of the world's problems are intrinsically tied to religion, so knowing about the world's religions is completely necessary."

Tufts Hillel Treasurer John Peter Kaytrosh believes that one reason nonbelievers scored well is because they are not tied to a particular faith. "The primary thing is that atheists and agnostics scored well because they're not tied to a particular faith so they … have done their work and have a wide base of religious knowledge," Kaytrosh said.

Religious education is necessary not only from a scholarly but also from a spiritual perspective, senior Ben Hampson, a leader of the Tufts Christian Fellowship, said.

"Everyone should make a point to know not only what you believe in, but what you don't believe in," he said. "I think it demonstrates a very mature view. [The survey] should demonstrate to individuals to look into faiths they aren't aware of."

While the study's findings point to many holes in people's religious knowledge, Christians in particular were shown to be lacking in general religious knowledge. Perhaps most surprisingly, 53 percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man responsible for inspiring the Protestant Reformation.

"I think it is disappointing that some very basic beliefs are not known or maybe not expressed," Hampson said. "I think that part of it is that people will identify themselves as culturally religious. I know a lot of Tufts students identify themselves as culturally Christian or Jewish, meaning they grew up observing some of the holidays but didn't really practice."

According to Johnson, the survey's results serve an important role in dissolving false assumptions about atheism that many religious people harbor.

"More than anything, the study says what atheism is not," he said. "Atheism is not the result of a lack of education. That atheists tend to know more about general religion and general knowledge speaks to the legitimacy — not to be confused with guaranteed veracity — of atheism. It demonstrates that it simply isn't true that the stupid or ignorant turn to atheism."

Stevens, in accord, explained that while atheists are often pegged as religiously ignorant, a wide-ranging religious knowledge is actually the basis for many atheists' beliefs.

"To be an atheist, or a non-believer, is to recognize the different belief systems available and then reject them. Part of this process is educating oneself about religion and what it has to offer — inherent in the definition of nonbeliever is acknowledging that which you don't believe, so atheists must know about other religions," she said. "Especially in America, which is such a religious nation, atheists have to be informed in order to justify their system of nonbelief."

The survey's results demonstrate the importance of religious education in America and the necessity of its improvement and integration into the secular education system, Dunn said.

"Since atheists and agnostics score relatively well in the survey, it's obvious that religious knowledge can and should come from sources outside the church, synagogue and mosque," Dunn said. "So, those of us who teach subjects related to religious traditions have our work cut out for us."

Carter Rogers contributed reporting to this article.