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Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation? Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Joseph Smith? Mother Teresa?

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

This recent survey (September 2010) by the Pew Polling group has found that most Americans can’t even answer questions about their own faith, let alone others (around 50% accuracy). Not only that, but Atheists and Agnostics scored the highest in this test of religious knowledge.

Why would atheists/agnostics have a better understanding of the world religions they have rejected, and does this have implications for the way religious thinking affects knowledge? Let’s discuss the results below.

The Results

Clergy members who are concerned that their congregants know little about the essentials of their own faith will no doubt also be appalled by some of these findings:

  • Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation.
  • Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Christ.
  • Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

This was quite a sizable study; large enough to yield reliable results that could be extrapolated to the rest of America. Therefore we can assume that this trend applies to our society. But why would the non-believers have more knowledge about religion than the religious? The answer is quite simple, but may begin to sound like a criticism of religious thinking. Here we will not be concerned with the unspoken rule that “you do not make fun of my faith”. This is a scientific endeavor, dealing with statistical data and current trends. It is imperative that we handle our analysis without the opaque bias of religious accommodation.

With that said, why would atheists know more, on average, than their religious counterpart? The answer is in the approach that one takes when adhering to either ideology (or lack thereof). A religious world view is based upon theological tradition, teaching, and conversation. At a young age, children are given all the answers they require about the world, supplied from millenia old metaphysics. From this point on, rational explanation becomes secondary to their own beliefs, and consequently science is seen as forcefully encroaching upon a blissful comfort zone where life’s largest questions are already answered.

In contrast, although many atheist and agnostics were brought up in religious homes, they have not found the traditional explanations satisfactory. Using the powerful combination of science and reason, the complexity and wonder of nature is teased out into manageable portions of evidence and theory. From this method, the existence of a god is called into question, and/or fully dismissed. It is also interesting to me that many atheists, myself included, have been turned away from religion by religion itself.

IQ vs. ID

Don’t read too much into this first study. It is not saying that atheists and agnostics are on average more intelligent than the religious…but another study does exactly that. For the following discussion, when I reference the religious or religious thinking, I will be referring to fundamentalist viewpoints that are generally very reason allergic. This would include creationists, young Earth believers, humans as the apex of animal life proponents, etc.

In 2008, intelligence researcher Helmuth Nyborg examined whether IQ relates to denomination and income, using representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, which includes intelligence tests on a representative selection of American youth, where they have also replied to questions about religious belief. His results, published in the scientific journal Intelligence demonstrated that on average, Atheists scored 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, 3.82 points higher than Liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. “I’m not saying that believing in God makes you dumber. My hypothesis is that people with a low intelligence are more easily drawn toward religions, which give answers that are certain, while people with a high intelligence are more skeptical,” says the professor.

IQ vs % Not Believing in a God

On average, dismissing the existence of a god correlates to a higher IQ. Again, I know that there are many fantastically smart religious people out there; however, these intelligence tests were based upon average rational and scientific knowledge, something that may be an encumbrance for the extremely religious who refuse to learn what is inside a cell (for example). The pitfall of religious reasoning (remember that here I mean the more fundamentalist viewpoints) is stated in Nyborg’s thesis where he states, “…religions, which gives answers that are certain…”. The absolute certainty with which religion treats the world leaves no room for other interpretations. In this way, a “dogmatic persuasion” defeats critical thinking and reasoning,  tantamount to an intellectual chastity belt.

This correlated intelligence, coupled with the fact that atheists and agnostics actually evaluate the claims of various religions, rather than using blind faith to accept them, satisfies the conclusion that atheists and agnostics will most likely know more about religion.

Making Up Your Mind

“Atheism is an effect of  knowledge, not a lack of knowledge”.

Atheists do not claim to know all the answers, but they have a tool, namely reason, that allows them to make predictions about the world with relative (being a pragmatic relativism) certainty. I find it more reasonable, feasible, logical, what have you, to begin exploring the world with all of the tools we have available to us, without a radical adherence to a world view thousands of years old. That is to say, to begin from the beginning. Start a rational journey with a base layer of awareness, and then make your own decisions using the critical thinking skills available to you.

How could a tribesman, perhaps contemplating his own existence in ancient Mesopotamia, know more about the machinations of nature than say, a modern biologist, cosmologist, or physicist? I assert that it is effectively irrational to believe religion can explain the world any better than science can, as dogma was thousands of years before any kind of enlightenment. Why must we use our scientific tools, and not the religious ones? Consider if only religious reasoning persisted through to modern times. Whenever we sneezed, a person would say “bless you” and truly think that there was a demon inside you, forcing the secretion of bodily fluids.

As both of the above studies bear out, intelligence favors those who evaluate claims. Religion and theology make grandiose, and more importantly, absolute claims about the universe. Such assertions should be open to debate, debunking, and dismissal, just as any other idea we think is rationally justified. I am not trying to offend any religious person who may be reading this, but I urge you to reflect on this. Do you believe what you do because you were taught is was true, or have you really come to a rational conclusion? Is there evidence to support your beliefs? Saying that “you must have faith”, is not a satisfactory argument. That is a form of circular reasoning where you claim something to be true because it already is true (does that make sense?).

I assure you that I do not sit in an ivory tower. I would gladly change my mind about any scientific conclusion if there was compelling evidence. That is the difference between science and religion. There is freedom of experimentation and intellectual movement that exists in science; to constantly mold and shape our universal understanding. I propose that is what being alive is all about; isn’t it? Religious reasoning effectively muzzles the interpretation of new ideas and discoveries; forever pointing to a compendium of unchanging ideals and traditions.

Atheism, or at the least agnosticism, should be the starting point from which to make up your mind about the world. It does not make sense to begin life with a handy-dandy set of universal answers, without exploring the knowledge for yourself. If you rationally come to the conclusion that the ideology of Christianity explains the world, power to you mate [I would also like to hear your explanations]. But at least you have engaged the critical thinking skills that can be so tragically muffled by blind faith in something you haven’t really even thought about. At least for me, I will go on trying to understand the world without the shackles of  flat-earth ideals.