Why Do Atheists-Agnostics Have More Religious Knowledge?

In a recent post, I commented on a recent Pew Forum survey finding that atheists-agnostics have greater knowledge of religions in general and Christianity in particular than do the believers in those faiths.  This has ruffled more than a few feathers in the communities of the faithful, especially American Christians who have always displayed a remarkable — and perhaps essential — amnesia when it comes to the origins and history of their religion (see “Historical Amnesia Supports Religious Faith“).

The recent Pew Forum findings are consistent with several studies which have found, using various tests of intelligence, that atheists regularly score higher than those who are religious.  To put it bluntly, it appears that atheists have higher IQs than the religious.  Although I have not discussed those studies here (too hot to handle!), Epiphenom has covered several — including the most recent by Satoshi Kanazawa.  Religious conservatives seemingly support these findings when they claim, with some justification, that institutions of higher learning are filled with the godless and parents send their children to such places only at great peril.

Given that the vast majority of people through time and across space harbor supernatural beliefs of one kind or another, it seems that a question more interesting than “Why Religion” is “Why Atheism.”  The default mode, in other words, is to believe in the supernatural and profess some form of faith.  How does a small minority of people — usually raised by religious parents in a community of believers — come to reject supernaturalism and religion?

Though the paths to this position may differ in their details, my guess is that the common denominator is an open, inquiring mind that concerns itself with truth.  It requires a sustained skepticism in the face of historical and community consensus; a consensus which holds that the supernatural is real and that religions are somehow in touch with the supernatural.

Most people who have arrived at atheism have done so only after years of sustained inquiry into all religious faiths — not only the theological tenets but also the historical particulars.  Any such search or inquiry necessarily entails a great deal of inquisitiveness, openness, and learning.  It is for this reason, I suppose, that atheists tend to know more about the histories and theologies of religions than do those who profess belief in such religions.

In his LA Times story on the Pew survey, Mitchell Landsberg largely confirms this:

So why would an atheist know more about religion than a Christian?

American atheists and agnostics tend to be people who grew up in a religious tradition and consciously gave it up, often after a great deal of reflection and study, said Alan Cooperman, associate director for research at the Pew Forum.

“These are people who thought a lot about religion,” he said. “They’re not indifferent. They care about it.”

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister from Leawood, Kan., and the author of “When Christians Get it Wrong,” said the survey’s results may reflect a reluctance by many people to dig deeply into their own beliefs and especially into those of others.

“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,” he said.

It is, therefore, supremely ironic that the religious — perhaps sensing this to be the case — are so hostile toward atheists and seven out of ten don’t want their children marrying those whose knowledge and incredulity makes them “amoral.

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