for Los Angeles Times on Oct. 2, 2010
If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.
Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans' knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term "blind faith."
A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn't identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation, according to the survey, released Tuesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Four in 10 Catholics misunderstood the meaning of their church's central ritual, incorrectly saying that the bread and wine used in Holy Communion are intended to merely symbolize the body and blood of Christ, not actually become them.
Atheists and agnostics — those who believe there is no God or who aren't sure — were more likely to answer the survey's questions correctly. Jews and Mormons ranked just below them in the survey's measurement of religious knowledge — so close as to be statistically tied.
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."
Atheists and agnostics also tend to be relatively well educated, and the survey found, not surprisingly, that the most knowledgeable people were also the best educated. However, it said that atheists and agnostics also outperformed believers who had a similar level of education.
The groups at the top of the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey were followed, in order, by white evangelical Protestants, white Catholics, white mainline Protestants, people who were unaffiliated with any faith (but not atheist or agnostic), black Protestants and Latino Catholics.
Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were included in the survey, but their numbers were too small to be broken out as statistically significant groups.
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