Pew poll showing atheists know more about religion is flawed, scholar says

Remember that Pew survey a few weeks back with the surprising conclusion that Americans, while claiming to be oh-so-religious, don’t know very much about religion, and that the folks who seem to know the most are atheists?

Georgetown Prof. Jacques Berlinerblau, who runs the school’s Program for Jewish Civilization, doesn’t think much of the survey.

Writing in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog yesterday, he called it a “preposterous pop quiz” that fundamentally misunderstand the fact that atheists generally aren’t born that way.

“The typical American atheist–let’s leave aside agnostics for now–grows up absorbing his family’s faith tradition,” he wrote. “Rejects it. Explores other traditions. Rejects those as well. And then settles on some form of nonbelief.”

Jewish atheists, he wrote, are very different from those who came to their atheism through Pentecostalism or Catholicism or any other faith tradition. “And perhaps that’s why they have the damnedest time forging meaningful political coalitions,” Berlinerblau said. “We must stop seeing atheists as complete aliens to religious thought. We must stop conceptualizing ‘atheists’ as a coherent polling category akin to ‘Jews’ or ‘Catholics.’ We must stop assuming that atheists spend their days jacking up religious people–even though that is a stereotype that celebrity atheists have done everything in their power to perpetuate.”

The poll’s claim that atheists are more religiously knowledgeable than believers is deeply flawed, he argued.

“By Pew’s standards a person would be considered to have knowledge about this text if s/he knew that: 1) Genesis was the first biblical book, 2) Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, 3) Moses led the exodus out of Egypt, 4) Job was obedient to God, and, 5) "Do unto others" is not in the Ten Commandments. Call me a stuffy gray beard, but I’m just not prepared to agree that this comprises any sort of serious knowledge about the Scriptures. I will, however, concede that the person who could answer all of those questions might make for a promising contestant on Jeopardy.”

But atheists, he said, lack the kind of in-depth understanding of religious writings and teachings that would allow them to “understand how the Bible [is] being used in policy debates.”

Atheists, for all the “factoids” at their command, “failed, for example, to neutralize, or even respond to, the Christian Right’s dubious arguments concerning ‘what the Bible says’ about homosexuality. Nor did they seem to understand that Mainline Protestants, progressive Catholics and so forth, may have shared their misgivings about Evangelical and Fundamentalist readings. To wit, they failed to understand who their allies were.”

Bottom line: atheists may score well on simplistic quizzes, but they may also lack a real understanding of how religion plays out in modern America – including in the realm of politics.

All of this, he said, is little more than a sideshow.

“The real, hot, ideological action in the United States is taking place within religious traditions, sometimes even within a given house of worship,” he wrote. “Those debates are raw and bitter and combustive and complex and their outcomes will shape our society for generations to come.”

That includes “pitched battles” between evangelical and mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics against progressive Catholics – and “Orthodox Jews against secular ones.”

“Those internal disagreements about homosexuality, abortion, foreign policy and so on, need to be watched very closely,” he concluded.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.