Flawed Pew Poll on Religious Knowledge Falsely Flatters Atheists

Recently, the Pew Research Foundation took a poll on religious "knowledge." The media is spinning the results of this poll to say that atheists are more knowledgeable about religion than are those who profess to be religious.

Before showing why the results of the poll don't support that conclusion, let's look at what the scores were. Atheists/agnostics correctly answered 20.9 of the 32 questions. Jews correctly answered 20.5 questions. For some reason, Protestants and Catholics were broken out by race, while atheists/agnostics weren't. In any case, Catholics averaged 16 right answers, while Protestants averaged 17.6.

The first thing to note is that the difference in the number of questions answered correctly is very small. Out of 32 questions covering many of the world's faiths, the difference between the atheists and the Christians is roughly 10%-13%. Not really that earth-shattering a difference.

The real problem arises from the questions themselves. It turns out that the survey actually contained roughly 65 questions, including ones about phone usage. If we ignore all the non-religious ones, it's pretty obvious that the Pew Foundation was really conducting a survey on religious history, not what people know about religion. Religious history is names, labels, and dates, while true religious knowledge is what people believe God teaches. While there were a few questions about religious beliefs, including one about the Catholic doctrine on Communion, most of the questions were of the names/labels variety, such as what religion was Joseph Smith?

An additional problem with the questions is that they were distributed across faiths running from the ancient Greeks to Muslims. Religious people tend to drill down in their own religion rather than spend time studying other faiths that they believe to be suboptimal. Atheists and agnostics, on the other hand, are much more likely to have a diverse, yet generally superficial, knowledge of multiple religions for two reasons. First, atheists/agnostics may have explored different religions in order to find one they felt comfortable with, and/or secondly, they may have investigated various religions in order to refute them.

The simple fact is that if you truly believe yours is the true faith -- and you're not an academic or an apologist -- spending time learning about other faiths is not a high priority. While there's nothing wrong with knowing about many faiths, it's far from clear that an atheist who happens to know that Zeus was the head of the Greek gods really has more religious knowledge than a Protestant who can quote hundreds of Bible verses, a Catholic who can explain the biblical basis for Catholic practices, or a Muslim who has memorized the Koran.

Essentially, the poll implicitly declares that horizontal knowledge of a variety of religions is more important than detailed vertical knowledge of a single faith. That's clearly a very dubious assumption.

The poll is flawed also because the very nature of the questions ensures that atheists/agnostics will tend to have higher scores. Atheists will usually do better than religious people on a poll that samples general knowledge because God is not an elitist; He welcomes everyone. But atheists require a lot of formal education in order to reject anything higher than themselves. Hence, atheists tend to be more educated than religious people -- but contrary to what some atheists claim, this is not a causal relationship because a significant majority of highly educated people are religious. 

Hence, in a poll testing historical knowledge across a spectrum of religions, an atheist who tends to have more formal education than the average religious person will get a higher score. The full report on the poll specifically cites the strong correlation between education, irrespective of religious affiliation, and high scores.

A serious methodological flaw with the poll, then, is that apparently Pew did not correct the scores based on the educational distributions of the various populations. This may explain the discrepancy between minority Christian and white Christian scores. Black and Hispanic Christians scored roughly three to four points lower than white Christians -- effectively identical to the gap between white Christians and atheists. This difference in scores between whites and minorities might be due to the differences in average education level. If that's the case, then there's reason to believe that if Pew had removed the impact of educational level, atheists would not have scored higher than anyone else. Until Pew resolves this issue, it will be impossible to conclude anything about a correlation of religious commitment and religious knowledge.

This poll measures how much knowledge Americans have of religious history, not what they know about their own beliefs. That's valuable information because it impacts how people interact with government and the culture. However, it is not a measure of what people know about their faith. 

Why are the media spinning the results of this poll to indicate that atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious people? Liberals tend to oppose religion because religion requires God, not Government, to rule all. Faith puts a limit on governmental powers. Liberals dislike such limitations.

In additions, liberals' general distaste for the simple faith of most Americans explains why the MSM is gleeful that atheists supposedly know more about religion than do religious people, building on the meme that intelligent people don't believe in God. The liberals are spinning this poll in a manner that will support their own personal beliefs on religion.

In the end, knowing how to worship and serve God is what matters in religion, not remembering names and dates or knowing what the latest Supreme Court ruling is.

Perhaps, in the future, Pew will conduct a poll that actually addresses what people know about God's will for them. In the meantime, however, we can turn to other studies that follow the money to see which people really understand God's will. Studies have shown that religious people give more to charity, in both time and money, than atheists/agnostics. That excess of charity by the religious is a strong indication that they do understand their faith well.