Do nonbelievers know more about faith than believers?

Sep 29th, 2010 in Daily Devotional by Jim Denison

A young man on his knees prayingDo atheists and agnostics know more about Christianity than Christians?  That’s what you would think if you scanned the headlines being generated by a new Pew Forum test on religious knowledge.  The Los Angeles Times: “If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.”  NPR: “Atheists and agnostics know more about Bible than religious.”  USA Today: “Unbelievers aced out the faithful when it comes to religious knowledge.”  CNN: “It’s not evangelicals or Catholics who did best—it’s atheists and agnostics.”

Is it really true that nonbelievers know more about faith than believers?

Atheists and agnostics answered 20.9 out of 32 questions correctly; white evangelical Protestants scored 17.6; white Catholics scored 16.0; white mainline Protestants scored 15.8.  So it would seem that people with no faith know more about faith than those who have it.

But the reports I’ve read on the survey are misleading.  When I went to the Pew Forum’s own website, I discovered that only 12 of their 32 questions on religion dealt with Christianity.  Eleven related to world religions; others focused on religion in public life.

Contrary to public impression, evangelical Christians did better than atheists/agnostics on questions dealing with Christianity.  But atheists and agnostics did much better than evangelicals on questions which focused on world religions, which makes sense as 70% of those who are affiliated with a religion say they seldom or never read about other religions.  And atheists and agnostics did better with questions about the role of religion in public life.  That’s understandable, as this issue is more relevant to them than to typical Christians.

So it turns out that nonbelievers don’t know more about Christianity than Christians.  And there’s more to the story.  People who attend worship services at least once a week and say that religion is very important in their lives did better than those with less commitment.  People who were members of religious youth groups did better than average.  And those who read the Bible at least once a week scored better.

Atheists and agnostics don’t know more about our faith than evangelical Christians, media reports to the contrary.  But there is no question that churches and ministries must do much more to educate believers about the basics of the faith, as well as the beliefs of other religions and the role of religion in public life.

When I graduated from college, the man who gave the academic scholarship which enabled me to attend his university pulled me aside.  He looked into my eyes and said something I’ve never forgotten: “The Holy Spirit has a strange affinity for the trained mind.”  The more educated we are, the more usable we are.

Our Father invites us to “reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).  We are called to love God “with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Our Lord deserves excellence in all we do.  Oswald Chambers‘ life motto should be ours: “My Utmost for His Highest.” Does he have yours?

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  • Jim, I enjoy reading your blog. It gets me focused for the day along with my daily Bible references. As I am non-white, I wondered about the studies you referenced in your blog this morning. Did the study only use white subjects or is there another reason that was the only group mentioned in your blog? I have no other reason to ask than I am a researcher myself and I can find other flaws in a study of that type than those outlined in your blog.

  • Dr. Denison, thank you so much for these daily essays. Each morning I turn to them to help me fix my mind on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. As I read this morning’s essay, it struck me that we as evangelical Christians tend to pride ourselves on what we do to educate others about the Christian faith, but not necessarily on learning about others, especially their spiritual beliefs. A common knock against Christians is that they only take an interest in people in order to “convert” them. But when we display a genuine concern for people — when we invite them to share their hopes, dreams, fears, concerns, and beliefs — we demonstrate the love that Jesus commands us to have for our neighbors. Try as we might to live out the Great Commission, most people won’t want to hear what we have to say if we make no effort to learn what makes them tick.

    • Angela, I wish I could find a way to make every Christian in America read your reply. How can we convince people that Jesus is relevant to their lives and problems if we’re not?

  • Dr. Denison, I too was curious about the conclusions drawn from the data that they presented, and went to the website to look at the data directly myself. I may be mistaken, but I noticed that they had only around 1% say that they were atheists, and therefore is a very small sample size. Also, they state that committed religious people (those attending services once per week, and consider their religion important in their lives) score higher than those that aren’t as committed, but they never state how much better, or compare the responses of those to the atheist group. But a fair conclusion to me would be that the survey does a good job at separating those who are true believers and those who just carry a religion for the name. In other words, those to whom their religion actually makes a difference in their lives are more concerned with knowing about their faith and other faiths, where as those who just say they are Christian or whatever other religion but not really practicing that religion, are less likely to truly believe and truly be interested in defending their faith against other ideologies.


    • An excellent analysis of the survey, in my opinion. It’s conventional wisdom in America that if you’re a good person who believes in God, you must be a Christian unless you’re Jewish, Muslim, or member of another world religion. The closer we get to Jesus, the more motivated we become to know his word and find ways to relate it to our world.


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