In a Pew Forum survey released Tuesday, atheists and agnostic surpass all other groups in their knowledge of religion. How do you explain this? Educational level? That they have given more consideration to the religions they have rejected?
Is knowledge of religion important? Why?
The Pew poll of religious knowledge, in which atheists/agnostics scored ever-so-slightly higher than Jews and Mormons demonstrates at least four significant facts about what we know and why we know it. Appreciating these facts would go a long way toward ending the ugly fighting between theists and atheists. Of course they would need to want to stop their mutual mistreatment and disrespect for that to happen, but that is a different matter altogether.
First, Knowing God is different than Knowing about God and knowing about religion should not be confused with following a particular faith. That atheists and agnostics (why they are lumped together is a question for another time) scored highest is actually not that surprising. In fact, one might assume that knowing about religion plays a similar role in the lives of atheists/agnostics as does having religious experience does in the lives of believers – each is a source of personal identity.
Second, Knowing and believing are fundamentally different from each other. It’s not that one is inherently superior to the other, and each has its own rewards. We don’t confuse understanding the history and mechanics of human sexuality with the power and beauty of making love, so why do we fail to make that distinction when it comes to religion?
Probably because atheism is as much a personal identity issue for non-believers as is religion for believers. In each case arrogance about the position which works best in one’s own life leads, as it often does in such matters, to ignoring the insights which are only available through the perspective of the position one does not adopt.
Third, there is almost always a tension between depth and breadth of knowledge. Not surprisingly, the more deeply committed one is to a particular faith tradition, the less likely they are to know a great deal about other traditions.
This fact should serve as a warning to any group which focuses exclusively on the value of deepening one’s knowledge of their own tradition. Too often it creates followers of the faith who are dangerously ignorant of the wider world in which they live. I challenge anyone to locate a time in which the price of increasingly knowledge of one’s faith was increasing ignorance of the faith of others, actually worked out well for anyone.
Fourth and finally, one need not know a great deal, even about the history or dogma of one’s own faith, in order to feel deeply connected to it. As demonstrated by the poll, many Catholics do not understand transubstantiation, many Protestants do not know about Martin Luther, yet they identify with those traditions.
The history and ideology of any tradition is simply not the determining factor in most people’s attachment to it. People attach to religious traditions at least as much because of what they experience within the context of the community of followers, as they do because of the teachings of its leaders.
So far, the Pew poll has mostly served as a Rorschach test for those commenting on it. The atheists/agnostics trumpet their “superior knowledge” and the “fact” they are better informed than their believing counter-parts. Believers, for their part, mostly bemoan the “low levels” of religious literacy especially within their own communities, failing to notice the implicit dangers of ignoring the value of personal experience and knowledge of other traditions.
Of course, my own analyses may be just as much a Rorschach of my own approach to religious knowledge and experience, but to the extent it values those who don’t share my own personal conclusions, I’ll take it over the others any day and twice on Sunday, or whatever day one calls Sabbath!