This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, but a new Pew study shows that non-theists are more knowledgeable about religion than every group of theists:
Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7.
Some of the results were particularly surprising:
More than four-in-ten Catholics in the United States (45%) do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. About half of Protestants (53%) cannot correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation, which made their religion a separate branch of Christianity. Roughly four-in-ten Jews (43%) do not recognize that Maimonides, one of the most venerated rabbis in history, was Jewish.
NYT's Laurie Goodstein quotes American Atheists president Dave Silverman:
"I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," Mr. Silverman said. "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."
Mitchell Landsberg of the LA Times wonders "why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?"
American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.
"These are people who thought a lot about religion," he said. "They're not indifferent. They care about it."
Friendly Atheist observes that "many of us left religion for a reason -- we learned too much about it. That helped push us away from faith altogether. Why else do you think we scored the best?"
I took Pew's 15-question sample quiz, with this result:
The superior showing of atheists and agnostics in this poll renders John Shook's remarks at HuffPo even more ridiculous than they originally were. Shook opened his piece with this broadside:
Atheists are getting a reputation for being a bunch of know-nothings. They know nothing of God, and not much more about religion, and they seem proud of their ignorance.
I spend a not inconsiderable amount of time correcting theists about the history and content of their own religions, and I know plenty of other atheists who do the same.
Shook's inanity prompted this response from Jerry Coyne:
Well, Dr. Shook, show me some new evidence for God, for the divinity of Jesus and Mohamed, for the existence of the Hindu pantheon and the afterlife, for the intercession of a celestial being in the world, and I'll start paying attention to the finer points of theology.
update (9/29 @ 5:40pm):
Jamelle Bouie at American Prospect writes that "religious minorities...are well-served by a working knowledge of religion:"
...the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn't necessary when you're in the majority. Put another way, there's a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.
Russell Blackford writes that "the ignorance of religion displayed by religious believers in America is appalling:"
Their reasons for believing in a particular set of religious propositions certainly cannot be based on a sound knowledge of what is on offer and deep reflection on the evidence. In America, at least, most believers simply don't know what they're talking about. [...]
Forget the arguments about atheists rejecting the proposition that God exists, while being untutored in the more subtle kinds of academic theology. American believers accept extraordinary claims about the existence of a God, and much else, from a position of vastly more profound ignorance. That's the reality, folks.
Tom Flynn's piece at WaPo's "On Faith" website observes that atheists and agnostics are groups who have "made it their business to be exceptionally knowledgeable about religion:"
In addition, as adherents of an often-unpopular worldview, atheists and agnostics are frequently challenged to defend their position. In my experience, people whom propriety would restrain from grilling a Mormon or Jehovah's Witness about his or her religious beliefs are seldom shy about challenging the unbelievers they encounter. So even atheists and agnostics who didn't engage in the study of religion in the course of abandoning their childhood faith feel pressure to come to "know thy enemy."
Dave Silverman at Fox notes the "simple truth" that "the more someone knows about religion, the more likely they will reject it as mythology:"
When a person begins to doubt the veracity of the religion into which they happen to have been born, they often read the holy books in the hope that they are wrong, that it will all make sense, and that the answers provided by those books will be logically valid. The problem is, they aren't.
Hemant Mehta writes in a follow-up post at Friendly Atheist that "many Christians choose not to read the Bible for themselves:"
They like having someone else interpret it for them, leaving out the stuff that might cause cognitive dissonance. Which is disappointing. If people understood why they reject every other god, maybe they'd see why we reject theirs.
Mehta also writes in the Chicago Tribune:
They say a little knowledge can hurt you, but in our case, a lot of knowledge led us to believe that what we were being taught in our churches, synagogues, and mosques were a collection of lies -- Well-meaning lies in most cases, but certainly not reflective of reality.