Thursday, October 21, 2010

U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

A couple of weeks ago, I went to my Tuesday evening bible study after having dealt with the death of a parishioner. The bible study had diverged for a few weeks to look at early church councils, notably Nicea, Constantinople and then Chalcedon. But I had not had the time to pull stuff together for that meeting since all of the discussion of beings and essences, like and similar, Arius and Athanasius, take a fair bit of care. Not only did I not have the time that day to bring it all together, I was spent.

But I had earlier that day, found the full survey, questions and all from the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey done by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (executive survey: here; Full wording of questions and topline results, here). The big takeaway that the media reported was the amount that atheists knew about religions and how little some Christians knew, sometimes about their own denominations beliefs. I had been digging around to see exactly what the questions were, and what the details of the actual survey-taking were. So the others in the bible study were willing to look at the whole survey. We thought there were some very interesting things within.

It had been reported that over 3400 had taken the survey. True. 3412 respondents answered. And that is amazing since this survey appears to have been administered completely over the phone. This survey was not a trivial set of questions. Along with the 32 content questions, there were a great deal of questions about demographics and religious life. We estimated that the survey could have taken thirty to forty-five minutes to take. While over 3400 people took the survey, we wondered how many people were called and refused to take part given the length. To us this question matters, since the number reported is not just a random sampling of America, but a distribution of Americans who want to take this time to talk about religion... over the phone.

Of course this goes to the question of the reported results, specifically about religious knowledge of atheists and agnostics. Only four percent of the respondents identified themselves as atheist or agnostic. Out of 3412, then somewhere around 135 people are being lifted up here. I am sure that researchers will say that it is likely a proportionate number of Christians hung up or refused to take the survey. Could be. But if one is atheist, I wonder why they would want to take this much time talking about religion. Is this the average run of the mill atheist? Or those of a more militant stance seeking to show what they know?

I won’t dispute the general shape of the results since it is my experience that many atheists do know a good deal about religion. Most know exactly what they are denying. I do wonder though if the disparity is as great as reported. And then as I preached in my sermon the Sunday following the release of the results (which can be heard here), knowing about religion is not the same as knowing God.


PrSBlake1 said...

Interesting. My experience is different. My experience is that the atheists or agnostics I encounter tend to have a view of Christianity and the church which they have gotten from TV or from Evangelicals - it tends to be a very legalistic, literal and uncompromising view of Christianity. And they seem to have no understanding and are surprised that this is not the view of all Christians. I have a friend who is a militant rationalist and the Christianity she sets up to shoot at bears no relationship whatsoever to my understanding or experience of Christianity. Blessings...

Brian Bennett said...

Ok, so I should have made the distinction. Atheists know routine facts about religion. And this survey plays to that strength.

Where atheists have problems is precisely in the question of interpretation of Christianity or stereotyping caricatures of the faith as portrayed in the media or even through personal experience. After all, let's face it, some atheists come by their incorrect perceptions honestly. Christians behave badly all too often. Especially toward atheists.

I am just about finished with DB Hart's Atheist Delusionswhich is all about this issue. I will write about that soon.