Do nonbelievers know more about faith than believers?
Do 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?