Brilliant doubters, dull believers?

Once again, our friends at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have unleashed another survey that is causing waves of ink to crash into the mainstream press. This time around, the numbers are rather predictable -- revealing that Americans, as a rule, have lots of feelings about religion in their hearts, but not that much information in their heads. By all means, check out the actual survey materials -- right here.

If you want to sample the tsunami of mainstream coverage, my advice -- picking on several major players -- is that you turn to CNN, the New York Times and USA Today and, well, ignore the Los Angeles Times.

Why do I say that? Well, the sexy lede out of this study is that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than, well, religious people. That is just accurate enough to be misleading. It's also not all that surprising. I know very few people who are as obsessed with the fine details of religion as highly motivated unbelievers. As the old saying goes, the opposite of love is not hate, it's apathy.

What the survey reveals is that certain kinds of people know more about world religions, in general, while others may know more about their own religions.

Check out the top of the New York Times story by veteran Laurie Goodstein:

Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

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.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith. Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

What is hard to tell is whether or not the results focusing on "Christians" simply covered too broad a spectrum to compete in that kind of simplistic framework. For example, Mormons and Evangelical Protestants demonstrated high levels of knowledge about the Bible and Christian beliefs, while agnostics, atheists and Jews were more familiar with the details of world religions, period.

You can see a bit more of the complexity of the results in the top of the report by Godbeat veteran Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today. This is one case where the use of info bullets at the top of a story, in my opinion, really helped:

The new U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, finds that although 86% of us believe in God or a higher power, we don't know our own traditions or those of neighbors across the street or across the globe.

Among 3,412 adults surveyed, only 2% correctly answered at least 29 of 32 questions on the Bible, major religious figures, beliefs and practices. The average score was 16 correct (50%).

Key findings:

* Doctrines don't grab us. Only 55% of Catholic respondents knew the core teaching that the bread and wine in the Mass become the body and blood of Christ, and are not merely symbols. Just 19% of Protestants knew the basic tenet that salvation is through faith alone, not actions as well.

* Basic Bible eludes us. Just 55% of all respondents knew the Golden Rule isn't one of the Ten Commandments; 45% could name all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

* World religions are a struggle. Fewer than half (47%) knew that the Dalai Lama is a Buddhist; 27% knew most people in Indonesia are Muslims.

Along the same lines, the New York Times noted that 53 percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man who started the Protestant Reformation and 43 percent of Jews did not know that the great philosopher Maimonides was Jewish.

According to the researchers, a person's education was the single best predictor of how she or he would score. I do not doubt that. However, when I have a chance to dig further into this data, I will be looking for evidence of a pew gap in this Pew effort.

In other words, did anyone try to find out if the intensity of a person's religious practice has anything to do with knowledge. In other words, do daily Mass Catholics know more about Catholicism and other religions than inactive Catholics? Do Jews who regularly attend worship services know more about, well, Maimonides than Jews who are completely secular? Do Evangelicals who take part in foreign missions projects know more about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., than people who say they are vaguely "Protestant" and that's that?

And the Los Angeles Times piece? OK, OK, here is the start of that one:

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

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."

So there.

Another way to interact with the material is through the CNN Belief weblog, where you can test yourself on sample questions -- right here -- and read a column by the scholar whose work sank into the DNA of this study. That would be Stephen Prothero of Boston University, author of, among other works, a book entitled, "Religious Literacy -- What Every American Needs to Know -- And Doesn't." He trumpets:

Believers and nonbelievers obviously disagree on the virtues and vices of religion. But all careful observers of the world should be able to agree on this: From time immemorial, and for better or for worse, human beings have been motivated to act politically, economically and militarily by their gods, scriptures and priests. Without making sense of those motivations, we cannot make sense of the world.

It is time to address our national epidemic of religious illiteracy.

And all the GetReligion readers said?

"Amen" (I hope).

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