The Los Angeles Times1 article was the first story I read. I loved the lede:
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.The rest of the article is great, with no obvious blunders and good quotes from smart sources. However, even this article had to include the obligatory balance graf at the end of the story:
Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."
The Pew survey was not without its bright spots for the devout. Eight in 10 people surveyed knew that Mother Teresa was Catholic. Seven in 10 knew that, according to the Bible, Moses led the exodus from Egypt and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.Pretty weak tea, I'd say. I wonder how many people would answer this question correctly: "Is the Pope Catholic?" It wouldn't be 10 out of 10 if "Does a bear shit in the woods?" was a possible answer.
Take a 15 question quiz yourself. I definitely want to dig into the actual results, especially questions of theology, if there were many. I'm guessing that the gap of knowledge about theological points is even bigger than basic knowledge.
UPDATE: Finally accessed the actual report.
UPDATE II: Much harder quiz on atheism at All Things Wildly Considered. (h/t Jerry Coyne)
UPDATE III: Finally, an article explaining why believers do so poorly on religious knowledge, rather than a simple speculation why atheists do better. Daniel Dennett, who is the least well-known of the Gnu Atheists because he rarely writes in the press and doesn't have a blog, has a typically smart essay on the topic: The Unbelievable Truth: Why America has become a nation of religious know-nothings. Again, (h/t Jerry Coyne)
Interesting results and the test of my guess after the jump.
From the questions and topline results:
Good to know. There were 32 questions about religious facts. There were only 2 questions about theology: the doctrines of transubstantiation and salvation.
I was raised Lutheran and I didn't know that Martin Luther's doctrine was sacramental union, not consubstantiation. He categorized con- with trans- as a philosophical explanation of the real presence, not doctrine. Learn something new everyday. Probably a lot more new facts at the full article on the eucharist, but I haven't got all day.
Well, I was wrong. There isn't a noticeably bigger gap in knowledge about theology than other religious facts. It's about the same for the first theology question. 40% of the general population got the substantiation question right while 41% of atheists / agnostics (a/as) did. But, if you take out Catholics, who thankfully did the best on this question, it looks better for the ungodly. A proper comparison would be to Protestants (35%) and Jews (33%). So a/as were about 20% more knowledgeable than their non-Catholic peers, just under the gap from all questions.
Salvation theology was better for the condemned, with 16% of the general population right and 22% of a/as. (Only white evangelicals did better with 28% correct.) A/as did have a wider advantage on this question, about 35%. Overall, and I have to qualify all of this is based on only two questions, the theological advantage was about the same as the general knowledge gap.
Forgive me, but I have to include this great quote from Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists:
I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. 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.1 The other Times is a great paper that doesn't get any respect. Update: I must admit, I don't all that much about the paper. I've read good reporting there, and I know it gets totally ignored in national media discussions. But this article on the Tribune Company, the LA Times owner, shows the other Times has had, and will continue to have hard times. (October 8, 2010)