Pew poll showing atheists know more about religion is flawed, scholar says
10/26/2010 - 10:06
James Besser

Remember that Pew survey a few weeks back with the surprising conclusion that Americans, while claiming to be oh-so-religious, don't know very much about religion, and that the folks who seem to know the most are atheists?

Georgetown Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau, who runs the school's Program for Jewish Civilization, doesn't think much of the survey.

Writing in the Washington Post's “On Faith” blog yesterday, he called it a “preposterous pop quiz” that fundamentally misunderstand the fact that atheists generally aren't born that way.

“The typical American atheist--let's leave aside agnostics for now--grows up absorbing his family's faith tradition,” he wrote. “Rejects it. Explores other traditions. Rejects those as well. And then settles on some form of nonbelief.”

Jewish atheists, he wrote, are very different from those who came to their atheism through Pentecostalism or Catholicism or any other faith tradition. “And perhaps that's why they have the damnedest time forging meaningful political coalitions,” Berlinerblau said. “We must stop seeing atheists as complete aliens to religious thought. We must stop conceptualizing 'atheists' as a coherent polling category akin to 'Jews' or 'Catholics.' We must stop assuming that atheists spend their days jacking up religious people--even though that is a stereotype that celebrity atheists have done everything in their power to perpetuate.”

The poll's claim that atheists are more religiously knowledgeable than believers is deeply flawed, he argued.

“By Pew's standards a person would be considered to have knowledge about this text if s/he knew that: 1) Genesis was the first biblical book, 2) Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, 3) Moses led the exodus out of Egypt, 4) Job was obedient to God, and, 5) "Do unto others" is not in the Ten Commandments. Call me a stuffy gray beard, but I'm just not prepared to agree that this comprises any sort of serious knowledge about the Scriptures. I will, however, concede that the person who could answer all of those questions might make for a promising contestant on Jeopardy.”

But atheists, he said, lack the kind of in-depth understanding of religious writings and teachings that would allow them to “understand how the Bible [is] being used in policy debates.”

Atheists, for all the “factoids” at their command, “failed, for example, to neutralize, or even respond to, the Christian Right's dubious arguments concerning 'what the Bible says' about homosexuality. Nor did they seem to understand that Mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics and so forth, may have shared their misgivings about Evangelical and Fundamentalist readings. To wit, they failed to understand who their allies were.”

Bottom line: atheists may score well on simplistic quizzes, but they may also lack a real understanding of how religion plays out in modern America – including in the realm of politics.

All of this, he said, is little more than a sideshow.

“The real, hot, ideological action in the United States is taking place within religious traditions, sometimes even within a given house of worship,” he wrote. “Those debates are raw and bitter and combustive and complex and their outcomes will shape our society for generations to come.”

That includes “pitched battles” between evangelical and mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics against progressive Catholics – and “Orthodox Jews against secular ones.”

“Those internal disagreements about homosexuality, abortion, foreign policy and so on, need to be watched very closely,” he concluded.

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as a former atheist raised CATHOLIC, THIS article is flawed. atheists spend MORE TIME seeking facts regarding what they're told to believe, which is what I did. I and find that many including rabbi's are ignorant about Moses, his ETHIOPIAN wife, especially Genesis 10:2 (physical GEOGRAPHY cannot be re-translated), the genealogy of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses AND Christ (who's ironically rejected by mainstream judaism) the other big clue about the ignorance of MANY professed christians, esp southern baptists (black or white) and devout religious persons including Billy Graham, top so-called educators and President Woodrow Wilson himself: Deut. 28, Exodus 4:5-9, Numbers 12:1-10 (or whatever you want to call the book in the Torah or Koran). the most ignorant of religion: hate groups such as KKK, or their favorite person, Sarah Palin their knowledge of these *critical* areas speaks directly to their ignorance and watch the lies that fall out of their mouths trying to explain either.
In a recent opinion post conducted by Dr Berlinerblau it is shown that one religious person can't comprehend the results of a simple survey. Solution: condemn the intelligence/comprehension of the group and call said survey flawed. Religion once understood is a great source of entertainment for the non-religious when debated peacefully, however when we put religion into practice in the real world the results are not so entertaining for those who understand religion and wish to have nothing to do with it.
Dr. Berlinerblau's assumption that Atheists' understanding of scriptures is limited to a few scattered facts with neither any real depth of the holy writs nor how they effect political debates is totally without substance. Atheists, while not a monolithic group by any means, more than anyone else have a grasp on how varying interpretation of scriptures underly politics as well as policy. We tend to be both the victims and only real opposition to most of the religious pandering that occurs at all levels of policy making. As for not recognizing our potential allies, that is a double-edge sword. We do of course join the more moderate and/or liberal among the religious when doing so would be useful. We also must bear in mind that it is the insistence of those same moderates/liberals that religious belief is somehow beyond criticism and that, although fundamentalists take religion to extremes, belief in invisible sky kings for which not only is there no proof but not even any reasonable evidence, is entirely reasonable and deserving of respect that lends credibility and cover to the extremists in the first place. No Dr. B, it seems that although we understand religion and the religious very well, you do not understand us at all.
TheLando makes a very valid point. Dr. Berlinerblau seems to be arguing that religious people have a deeper understanding of religion than atheists even when they don't possess even trivial knowledge about their scriptures. How can you have deep understanding of the creationist view if don't even know about Genesis and it's relation to the Bible? Isn't this base knowledge vital for deeper understanding? I don't buy into Dr. Berlinerblau's theory that those who know less knowledge actually understand the issues deeper.
While I agree that the poll doesn't accurately calculate how much we atheists know about religion, I disagree with Prof. Berlinerblau's conclusions. He's right that atheists in America typically have grown up in religious households. He seems to make this point with a, "well duh" as though that explains away the results of the poll. I don't know a lot about religion because I'm an atheist. I am an atheist because I know a lot about religion. Maybe I don't know as much about Judaism as the professor who runs Georgetown's Program for Jewish Civilization, but obviously I know more than someone who doesn't know that Job was obedient and that Moses led the exodus. What the poll accurately showed was the comparison of knowledge between the average atheist and the average theist. That's what is significant about this poll. So go ahead professor, stay safe in your ivory tower. Pew wasn't trying to challenge your own intelligence, just that of your brethren.
While Dr. Berlinerblau seems as though he must be a reputable scholar, being at Georgetown, his opinion on this matter is just silly. How could anyone possibly have a deep understanding of their respective scriptures if they can't answer simple questions about some of the most commonly-referenced passages? Certainly people read a great deal into, say, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Issac, but how could you find any "teaching" in the tale if you don't even know the basic outline of the stories? I find it completely outrageous that many people who justify their (usually bad) behavior with scripture apparently don't even know what the scripture says, but I find it even more outrageous that this academic would suggest that these same people somehow have a depth of religious understanding that atheists can't even begin to penetrate. Face it: most religious people don't even read the text they believe to be the word of god.

it's worse than that, what he's requiring is the leap that factual information is somehow less than an interpretive position--how religion affects society? that's a question whose answer depends (ironically) on the perspective one has--shame on this "scholar". what this professor wants is a test that polls one's doctrinal attitude to the facts, and clearly, if you fail a basic test of the facts at issue, how can you provide any type of meaningful interpretation? no, professor, go back to grad school, this time for teaching. you might learn something. Then again, that ship may have already sailed.

Dr. Berlinerblau's comments are justified by a closer inspection of the poll results. For example, if you compare Evangelical Christians to atheists *on questions about Christianity and the Bible*, you will see that the Evangelicals perform better than the atheists. If you compare Evangelicals to atheists on questions about world religion, the atheists perform better. The Evangelicals are not displaying a poorer understanding of their own religion than the atheists. (Although, I agree with Dr. Berlinerblau that correctly answering all of the questions is not enough to count as being informed about religion.)