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Argument Culture: Why Atheists Score Higher On Religious Knowledge

September 28, 2010, 1:40 PM

There's speculation all over the Web today about what seems at first to be an unexpected survey finding from the Pew Research Center: Even after controlling for education, Atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons score higher on quiz like questions of religion-related knowledge than Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals.

Yet the results are not that surprising when put in the context of research I have conducted with my colleague Dietram Scheufele on the factors shaping political knowledge more generally. Here's why:

1) Each of the highest scoring groups is a very small minority in a U.S. culture dominated by other belief traditions. Under these conditions of minority status, there is much higher motivation for members of these groups to seek out, acquire, and retain knowledge about their own beliefs, the beliefs of others, and the legal protections afforded religion. 

2) This motivation to acquire and retain knowledge is amplified when these minority individuals also anticipate engaging in conversations or arguments with others--where as a small minority--they often have to defend their own beliefs.

In other words, contrary to some of the claims made today, it's not that atheists are smarter or superior to other groups, but instead, the social climate in the United States encourages and motivates atheists to acquire higher levels of religious knowledge. 

For comparison, consider that in past survey studies, Pew has also found that self-identifying Republicans--today a small minority in American politics--score significantly higher on public affairs knowledge than Democrats even after controlling for education, age, and gender.

Consider also that just like the conservative media--where Bill O'Reilly opens every show with talking points for his like-minded audience and Anne Coulter writes books titled "How to Talk to a Liberal If You Must"--atheist pundits provide similar ready-made interpretative handles for their readers and audiences.

Christopher Hitchens' best-seller God Is Not Great is just the latest in a long line of books written for atheists that review chapter by chapter the Bible and other religious texts refuting how the literal claims offered could not possibly be true and the many doctrines from world religions that restrict freedom or various liberties. In these works, just like Republicans highlight Nancy Pelosi, major figures such as Mother Teresa (one of the individuals asked about in the survey), are also demonized.

This heavy focus on "debunking" the arguments of the other side while demonizing historical and contemporary religious figures is also repeated at blogs and in personal conversations. As atheist blogger PZ Myers writes today, reflecting on the survey results: "This is no surprise — we've been aware of this for many years, and one of the things we've routinely experienced is the fact that in arguments, we almost always know more about our opponent's religion than he or she does."

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