If you haven’t already, expect to hear a lot about the recent Pew survey on the religious knowledge of Americans in the coming days:
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.
I wonder how the data would have looked if Pew had created a generic “nonbeliever” category and compared that group to Protestants and Catholics. Instead, they created two categories: Self-described atheists/agnostics, and people who described their religion as “nothing in particular.” The first group was 3 percent of the sample; the second group was a much larger 12 percent. And while the atheist/agnostics had the highest religious literacy, the larger “nothing in particular” camp was among the least literate overall.
This makes a great deal of sense. The very act of declaring yourself an “atheist,” after all, suggests a particularly high level of interest in religious detail and debate — higher than many self-described Methodists or cradle Catholics who have a vague belief in God and show up at church on holidays, and also higher than the many nonbelievers who are merely indifferent to religion. Another way of putting it is that self-described atheists are the religious converts of the irreligious world.
Another another way to put it is that self-described atheists and agnostics are probably a lot smarter than atheists and agnostics who don’t self-describe that way. Here, for example, is a breakdown of IQ by religious affiliation:
As you can see, self-described atheists and agnostics are a pretty smart bunch, though not as smart as Anglicans or Jews. Further down the list, you have people who adhere to a “personal philosophy” which seems to be the equivalent of the “nothing in particular” category in the Pew survey. Most of the Personalists undoubtedly qualify as atheists or agnostics, and if you lump all three into a general nonbeliever category you end up with an average IQ of 105.62, which is just below “Bible Christians.”
Why don’t Personalists identify as atheists or agnostics? Maybe they just haven’t given the matter enough thought. Or perhaps they don’t know what the word agnostic means. In that sense it is possible to be too stupid to be an atheist.