Some People Are Too Stupid To Be Atheists

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.


There have been a number of good responses on this. My thoughts, however, tended exactly in the direction of Ross Douthat’s:

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.

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17 Responses to Some People Are Too Stupid To Be Atheists

  1. bearing says:

    Wait a minute — is the average IQ in the population 106 now?

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Atheist web sites certainly make no great demonstration of knowing much of anything about religion. They usually consist of a mishmash of partial quotes from Hitler attempting to prove he was a theist, mangled Biblical quotations, and arguments that Christ never existed. Atheists have their “proof texts” no less than fundamentalists.

    As for the ignorance of believers, considering the state of catechesis in this country among Catholics, absolutely nothing would surprise me, I’m afraid. Truly learning about a faith requires some hard work. We live an age of laziness and indifference in religious matters.

  3. Anthony says:

    This survey did not surprise me— atheists typically know more about religions, but their study only goes so far as is enough to mock religion.

    The bulk of Protestants and Catholics, lets be honest, are so by birth or culture, and that is enough for them.

    At least, these are my suspicions.

    Either way, its a silly survey question to ask.

  4. cminor says:

    “The bulk of Protestants and Catholics, lets be honest, are so by birth or culture, and that is enough for them.”

    Agreed. There was also a relationship between education level and score–don’t Jews and nonbelievers tend to have higher than average rates of postsecondary education? I took both the 15 and 32-question versions and felt many of the questions were more “general knowledge” than specifically religious. A couple were real lulus–I knew who Maimonides and Jonathan Edwards were, but I wouldn’t bet on most of the U.S. population recognizing them–and a few just seemed oddly out of place (does Zeus really have a following anymore? They might have had a shot with Odin.)

    The stats also broke down by question type, with the atheist/agnostic group and Jews excelling in world religions and evangelical Christians and Mormons in biblical and Christianity questions.

    It’s a sign of the sorry state of catechesis to be sure, but also, I think, a sign that many nonpracticing “ethnic Christians” self-identify as Christian regardless.

  5. Jay Anderson says:

    There’s no doubt in my mind that everyone here could score a 32 out of 32 on that Pew Survey quiz:

    http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2010/0928/Are-you-smarter-than-an-atheist-A-religious-quiz/When-does-the-Jewish-Sabbath-begin?sms_ss=facebook

    Fairly easy for those who spend a lot of time paying attention to matters of religion and faith. But I’m not surprised by the fact that the everage Christian in the pews would score lower than the average atheist.

  6. Dave Hartline says:

    In some ways I am not surprised, many angry atheists spend a great deal of studying religion. They try to find some parts that in their minds that doesn’t make sense, hence they feel superior to God, which has always been their true goal. Once they feel superior, they simply say He doesn’t exist.

    As for Catholic and Protestants; let’s face it catechesis has been abysmal in the last 40 years. We can all think of older relatives we know who might have an 8th grade or 12th grade education. Yet, they know far more about their faith than many of their college educated grandchildren or great children. Too many liberal Catholic parishes and their happy clappy mega church counterparts, worry more about the feelings and comfort level of their congregants than what they are taught. You reap, what you sow.

  7. bearing says:

    “In some ways I am not surprised, many angry atheists spend a great deal of studying religion. They try to find some parts that in their minds that doesn’t make sense, hence they feel superior to God, which has always been their true goal. Once they feel superior, they simply say He doesn’t exist.”

    This may not be a popular thing to point out, but it’s also possible that the more you know about religion in general, the more likely you are to become convinced that it’s impossible to know who’s right (which would make you an agnostic) or the more likely you are to be tempted to deny God outright (which would make you an atheist). In other words, the loss of faith may actually be a risk of education in the field of religion.

    Mind you, obviously not everyone reacts that way. But it strikes me as plausible that a large number of people might.

  8. bearing says:

    Clarification: The distinction being that Dave Hartline suggests that atheism causes people to study religion, I am suggesting that in many cases studying religion may cause atheism.

  9. BA, your intuition concurs with Douthat’s take on the poll: it’s the diehard atheists who know more, but the “whatever” crowd (Personal Philosophy) knows little.

    I’m not at all surprised that “serious” atheists know more than the typical theist… all too often the latter lives like the former anyway.

  10. Perhaps you were speaking tongue in cheek, but the comment about “Personals” being too stupid to be atheists? The high end of that chart is 113, the low end is 106. There is no real, effective difference between an IQ of 113 and an IQ of 106. In fact, the same person could take the same IQ test on different days and score both a 113 and a 106.

    That’s ignoring the issue that nobody’s entirely certain what IQ measures or how useful a measurement it is.

  11. Pinky says:

    The quiz (at least the 15-question one that I found) was general knowledge. You had to know things about the Supreme Court, Pakistan’s population, and a variety of religions. General knowledge increases with education, and more highly-educated people self-identify as Jewish or Atheistic. There’s no way to say this without sounding ugly, but more uneducated people are Hispanic Catholics and Black Protestants.

    All the survey demonstrates is that general knowledge increases with academic accomplishment. Personally, I’m a bit surprised at that. But every group, even the most educated, revealed a great deal of ignorance, and that doesn’t surprise me at all.

  12. cminor says:

    Based on some of the discussion of this survey I’ve read elsewhere, I’d guess the scores were higher overall for those taking it online (That or all the respondents, in Lake Woebegone fashion, decided to be above average.) The hub suggested that might indicate a problem with the practice of giving such surveys over the phone. With 32 questions to get through, I’d bet on a few percentage points per respondent at least being due to miscommunications.

  13. Foxfier says:

    Cminor-
    good point; I’d been putting it down to folks who take the test already have an interest, and thus are going to know more.

    (I know I didn’t get the “great awakening” question, but that’s because I’d never heard it called that before. Big issue with history. ^.^ )

  14. Foxfier says:

    Just occurred to me:
    given the fallen nature of man, I wonder how many of the folks answering this survey were the confounders I know who found (and probably still find, a decade later) great amusement in picking the dumbest possible answers for any survey? It’s not like they’d give their correct religious views, they’d pick something they thought was “dumb.”

    (something I keep in mind when a survey of high school knowledge comes out: fully half of the males in my grade took great joy in picking the dumbest possible answer to any ungraded test)

  15. cminor says:

    Good point; self-selection obviates poll results for just such reasons.

  16. kyle kanos says:

    Perhaps you were speaking tongue in cheek, but the comment about “Personals” being too stupid to be atheists? The high end of that chart is 113, the low end is 106. There is no real, effective difference between an IQ of 113 and an IQ of 106. In fact, the same person could take the same IQ test on different days and score both a 113 and a 106.

    That’s ignoring the issue that nobody’s entirely certain what IQ measures or how useful a measurement it is.

    The thing is, though, that this isn’t a measure of an actual IQ, it’s a measure of “religious IQ” which is more meaningless than the “internet IQ tests” that prove absolutely nothing.

    I got into a debate with a Methodist over this, and everything he read (from CNN, of course) was promoting about how much smarter atheists were than Christians. Then I pointed out what is pointed out above here: that “atheist/agnostic” and “personal philosophy” are the same thing.

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