Today the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released the results of a new “religious knowledge” survey that came to a discouraging — but not unexpected — result.

It discovered that, on average, atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than believers.

Participants in the survey (which controlled for differing levels of education) were asked 32 questions about religion. On average, atheists and agnostics gave the most correct answers, with 20.9 correct replies. Jews scored next highest with 20.5, followed by Mormons at 20.3.

Protestant Christians averaged 16 correct answers. Catholics averaged 14.7 correct answers.

• Forty-five percent of Catholics thought the bread and wine of Holy Communion were only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ, rather than actually becoming the body and blood via transubstantiation — which is what the Catholic Church teaches.

• A majority of Protestants were unable to identify Martin Luther as the primary instigator of the Protestant Reformation.

• Mormons showed a better knowledge of the Bible than evangelical Christians.

Why do atheists and agnostics tend to know more about religion than devout religious people? Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum, explained that non-believers typically grew up in a religious tradition and gave it up on purpose — after a period of reflection, study, and conscious decision-making. “These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he told the L.A. Times. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

On the other hand, many Christians come to faith and then stop searching. The L.A. Times story also quotes Methodist minister Adam Hamilton, author of When Christians Get It Wrong, who said, “I think that what happens for many Christians is, they accept their particular faith, they accept it to be true and they stop examining it. Consequently, because it’s already accepted to be true, they don’t examine other people’s faiths. That, I think is not healthy for a person of any faith.”

My evidence is anecdotal, but I am not at all surprised at the findings. Most atheists and agnostics I’ve encountered are extremely knowledgeable about the Bible and can quote it as well as any preacher. (If you want to learn something about the Bible, just ask an atheist to list some of the contradictions in the Old and New Testaments.)

In response to the survey, Dave Silverman (the president of American Atheists) told the New York Times, “I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing. But the fact remains: frequent surveys find that atheists and agnostics are more educated than people who do believe in God.

The reason I wrote books like Pocket Guide to the Bible was to attempt to counter some of this ignorance. It just doesn’t make sense to me that Christians know so little about the Bible, since we are basing our entire lives on a faith tradition that arose from people believing and practicing its teachings. Yet most of us haven’t read it, we don’t know its content, nor do we know much about its history — from the development of the canon to the battles over translations in the 14th and 15th centuries.

I’ve made a statement like that before among Christians, and more than once, have had a fellow believer ask me, “What’s the canon?” (Sigh.)

What about you? Are you surprised by the results of this survey? Why do you think nonbelievers tend to be more knowledgeable about religion than believers?


Update: I changed the title of the post. Originally it said “Atheists Know More about the Bible than Christians,” which is what I wrote when I first read the study late last night and began the post. I finished the post this morning and realized the title didn’t reflect the survey accurately, but forgot to fix it. It’s more accurate to change “Bible” to “Religion.”

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