That’s me in the corner, choosing my religion

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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30 Responses

  1. Ben JB says:

    I think Jamelle’s take on who is more informed about religion makes a lot of sense. (Another parallel case might be language skills: when you’re a citizen of a super-power, there’s less incentive to learn other languages; when you’re from somewhere else, it makes sense to learn English.)

    But I’m less sure about the importance of conversion / choice here. For one thing, you associate conversion / choice with two top scorers who may have high incidences of that–but there’s conversion mechanisms in all of the religions included. I think we would need a another question in this survey to come up with evidence of your conclusion–not just “what are you?” but “what have you been?”

    As for your comment on the role of multiple strands in Judaism, I think that’s logically problematic–why should being aware of Judaism’s multiplicity help me answer questions about other religions?

    And I want to point out something (now that I’ve taken the test and seen some of the percentages)–check out how many people got question 11 wrong. That’s the question that asks if a teacher can read the Bible to a class. Only 23% said yes! I’m not sure who got that question right, and I’d want to check before guessing, but I can easily imagine that 77% of people who think the Bible is totally banned from public school also think of the Bible as their book.

    (Lastly, I’ve only known a few Mormons in my life, so I don’t want to state anything as obviously true, but I can see another factor in addition to the “minority preservation” and “high number of converts” issues, which is that Mormonism is highly convert-oriented. I mean, do Mormon schools teach world religions partly in order to make their students more effective in converting people?)Report

    • T. Greer in reply to Ben JB says:

      @Ben JB,

      Mormon schools do not “teach” much at all about world religions. To get through BYU, BYU Hawaii, or BYU Idaho one must take spend some 25-ish credits studying the Mormon standard works – Bible, Book of Mormon, and latter day revelations. Studying world religions is not required. (Moreover, the actual percentage of Mormons that go through Church schools are comparatively small.)

      The general point is correct, however. A great number of Mormons serve as missionaries. This is conducive to learning more about other religious traditions – the missionary in Mexico must be able to explain to potential converts the difference between Mormon and Catholic conceptions of priesthood; the missionary in Japan must quickly learn how to explain resurrection in such a way that it does not get confused with Buddhist notions of reincarnation. The act of converting forces missionaries to learn about the past religious beliefs of the converted.Report

    • @Ben JB, I think you’re right that Mormon teenagers learn a lot about other religions in preparation for missions work. I’m not Mormon, but my understanding is that if you’re a devout Mormon teenager, you’ll probably be spending two years as a missionary, which means you’ll be learning a lot about at least one other religion.Report

  2. Simon K says:

    Judaism doesn’t try to attract converts, but Reform and Conservative congregations do accept converts, most of whom are gentile women converting to judaism to keep their future husband’s family happy. You have to learn a huge amount of stuff to be accepted as a convert, so I’m sure that plays a role.Report

  3. RTod says:

    Jamie –

    I think Jamelle’s point that minorities are forced to learn about the majority is true to a point: If that were the inherent issue with nonbelievers, they would know as little as Christians regarding non-Christian faiths. And your point about choice probably is true for some. But I think there is another aspect that needs to be recognized, as least as far as nonbelievers are concerned: a greater desire to learn more about other faiths than the faithful have. This is of course a generalization, but most people of faith I know are just that: people of faith. My evangelical friends, as an example, for the most part have no desire to learn about much at all about atheism, Islam, Mormonism, or even Catholicism. What they know in their hearts about their own religion is enough for them, and there is no reason to go looking for truths in dangerous places. Better to use their resources reading, contemplating and discussing Paul’s letters than whatever Mohammed, Brigham Young or Christopher Hitchens might have said or done. In fact, the most faithful families I know (of any faith) actively discourage their children from learning much about what goes on over the fence.

    Most atheists and agnostics I know, are (despite what I see on Fox) un-Hitchens-like, not hostile towards religion (or at least not more toward one than another), and in fact more than anything seem fascinated by it’s pull for their friends and family. I see them constantly trying to learn more – not for Grace or Salvation, but just to learn what compels people they love to believe in something they find so inconceivable..

    I know as I write this people are going to jump down my pixelated throat, but I think non-believers as a rule are just more willing to learn about others’ faiths than the faithful.Report

    • gregiank in reply to RTod says:

      @RTod, Completely agree. I’m an EVVILLL athiest and am not anti-religion. If that is what helps people get threw life then good for them. I’ve also always had a curiosity about different beliefs and how people manage to get threw life.Report

    • RTod in reply to RTod says:


      Did I address that post to Jamie? WTF? Sorry, E.D.Report

    • T. Greer in reply to RTod says:


      This seems to make sense on the outset, but it really does not account for the high Mormon or Jewsih scores, does it?Report

      • RTod in reply to T. Greer says:

        @T. Greer,

        I know, I keep trying to force it one step further in my head and then it falls apart.Report

        • catchilupi in reply to RTod says:


          Jamelle Bouie’s conclusion, “As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa” is either illogical or Mormons are an aberation.

          Her statement, while probably true, has nothing to do with the Pew Research. Pew is SURPRISED that Mormons know more about Christianity than traditional Christians know about CHRISTIANITY. Jamelle is mistakedly UNSURPRISED that Mormons know more about Christianity than traditional Christians know about MORMONISM.

          She needs to read twice, post once.Report

  4. A couple points: first, I went to Boston College High School, which is Catholic and Jesuit. We had a four-year, required curriculum in religion. Year one – Catholic theology; year two – church history; year three – comparative world religion; year four – ethics. I think it was this learning about my own and other religions which eventually led to my current religious view of theological noncognitivism. Still, I don’t know how I would classify myself for that survey, because I would consider myself both culturally and ethically Catholic; I just don’t believe any of the crazy stuff. I think this phenomenon is probably pretty widespread at least in Catholicism, and if so, it would basically make the results of this survey meaningless.

    The second point is that what kinds of people are converted is also likely to considerably bias the results. The Catholic Church, more than other religions, puts a lot of time and effort into charitable pursuits for the poorest and least educated members of our global society. Communities are formed; conversions are made. Our leading immigrant communities generally come from countries where Catholicim predominates. Immigrants and poor people don’t really have time to read up on the tenets of Sikhism or the difference between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

    I’d like to see the results controlling for all of these confounding factors, but I imagine that the existence of these confounding factors probably makes this a non-story.Report

    • RTod in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      @Christopher Carr,

      I’m not it’s sure its a non-story. I’m sorry that they seemed to limit it to Judeo-Christians or nonbelievers, because although there is no conclusive evidence for or agianst, I can’t deny that the question it raised for me was this:

      Does the degree to which a population tends to trend towards religious fundamentalism have an inverse relationship to how knowledgeable that population is about religion? And maybe one step further based on some of the findings, to the how knowledgeable the population is about the history, text and dogma of it’s own faith?

      That can of worms seems utterly fascinating to me.Report

      • Christopher Carr in reply to RTod says:

        @RTod, Japan is about the least religious place around and the Japanese know nothing about other religions.

        I still think there is absolutely nothing that can be inferred from the results here with any sense of statistical robusticity, other than the correlation of relatively arbitrary labels (with a huge range of confounding factors) with general knowledge about world religions.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    In any case, I took the quiz and scored a 93% and the one question I missed was stupid on my part (I read the question as ‘what day is the Jewish Sabbath’ not ‘what day does the Jewish Sabbath begin’).

    It’s sort of a stupid question. I suspect that a Jew would say “The Sabbath begins the moment Saturday begins. So it begins on Saturday. And Saturday begins at sundown, like all other days.”Report

  6. Jason Kuznicki says:

    Also, can I get a big “I’m sorry” from all the complainers out there who said that the New Atheists were ignorant of what they condemned?Report

    • Chris in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, Sure, if this survey showed anything like that. For it to do so, a.) most atheists would have to be “New Atheists,” which is almost certainly not the case, and b.) the survey itself would have to test some deep knowledge of religion.

      I don’t think anyone has ever said that “New Atheists” don’t know that they, themselves, don’t believe in God, Ramadan is a Muslim holy month, Mother Theresa was a Catholic, or that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. If this is “knowing a lot about religion,” then I suspect most “New Atheists” do, in fact, know a lot about religion, but in that case, knowing a lot about religion is pretty cheap.Report

      • RTod in reply to Chris says:


        Seems odd to dismiss the results of the nonbelievers with an “well, anybody would know those things” kind of response.

        Cheap that knowledge may be, but they still did better than the faithful.Report

    • John Henry in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, I’m not sure who the complainers were, but it’s pretty obvious that this poll doesn’t prove anything one way or the other about the ignorance (or lack thereof) of the New Atheists. I mean, unless you think having heard of Moses or knowing when the Sabbath starts means someone is equipped to embark on a nuanced and thoughtful criticism of Judaism.Report

  7. Chris says:

    RTod, I’m not dismissing it, I’m simply pointing out that it’s not what people mean when they say that “New Atheists” don’t know much about religion. Of course, most of those people (me included, and I’m an “Old Atheist”) would also say that the religious don’t know much about religion, including their own, and we wouldn’t feel like we had to apologize for saying that because White Protestants did better than any other group on the Christianity questions.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Chris says:


      Keep in mind however the real thrust of the complaint, namely that atheism both fosters and stems from religious ignorance. “Not sophisticated enough,” was the complaint about Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris among others.

      I’m not about to defend each of them or say that they all pass some religious sophistication test. But the people who read and agree with them are in general better judges of the matter than the people who read and agree with, say, Rick Warren.Report

      • John Henry in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        @Jason Kuznicki, That’s a different claim entirely. If you want to argue that atheists tend to be smarter or well-educated, on average, than the casually religious that make up most Americans, that’s a perfectly fair observation. But that has nothing to do with the question of whether or not the New Atheists are making sound critiques, rather than ravaging villages of strawmen.

        For instance, most of us around here are much more politically aware than the average American, but are not policy experts on anything other than a few narrow topics. Just drawing on our broader general political knowledge, we could probably appear to win a policy debate with most people on the merits – still more, appear to win to those who are antecedently sympathetic. But faced with an actual expert in an area like education reform, we would (unaided by Google) be exposed as dilettantes. Just so, the New Atheists. And polls indicating that we knew who delivered the Gettysburg Address would be irrelevant one way or the other.Report

  8. Chris says:

    Jason, back in the day, I was one of those who criticized Dawkins et al. for their ignorance, and I stand by that criticism, and nothing in these survey results could make me change my mind, because they’re not really relevant to the criticisms I and others were using back then, namely that, sure, they may know more about religion in general, and perhaps even Christianity, than the average Chrsitian, but the average Christian isn’t writing a book saying that these are the reasons why we should believe, while Dawkins et al. were writing several telling us that these are the reasons why we shouldn’t. If you’re going to do that, then knowing more than the average bear isn’t worth much, and anyone who does know more than the average bear and has read Dawkins on theology or Harris on suicide bombing, e.g., knows that their knowledge of theology, history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy, as they relate to religion, is pretty damn limitedReport

    • RTod in reply to Chris says:


      I don’t normally defend the New Atheists, and haven’t read enough by Harris or Dawkins (Dawkin’s atheism books, anyway), but I think you’re wrong about Hitchens. I did read God Is Not Great, and most of what he writes there is response to things religious and political leaders say about religion, as well as defending nonbelievers against what same said folks say about them. He seems to have no or little issue (other than disagreement) with people who believe, only those that look to gain/consolidate power in the name of belief. And he does seem articulate and educated about those subjects.

      Which is not to say that his arguments are necessarily persuasive, but it seems off to criticize him for his theological philosophy when he appears to mostly be a social critic.

      Also, previous trips to the Christianity section at Borders make me suspect that just about every average Christian and their uncle DOES write a book about why they believe and why you should too.Report

      • Chris in reply to RTod says:


        OK, the Borders thing is funny.

        Hitchens I have less of a beef with, though in public he makes some pretty strange assertions about the history of religion. I feel even less offended by Dennett, though I think he gets some of the psychology wrong — his understanding of science always seems to be on the level of someone who reads Discover or watches PBS; he is, as Nagel once described him, “Gilbert Ryle meets Scientific American.”

        It’s Dawkins and Harris that are the real offenders. Dawkins pretty much dismisses theology and philosophy, for example, and when Harris is confronted with actual research that contradicts his armchair reasoning, he just puts his hands over his ears and screams “nah nah nah nah nah nah” (see, e.g., the exchange between Harris and Atran at one of the Beyond Belief conferences a few years ago; the video’s on the web somewhere).Report

  9. razib says:

    chris, where you been dawg? you know i tried to track you down a few years ago! luckily j knobe told me you were doing OK.

    70% of religious “nones” were religious before age of 12 according to the *american religious identification survey*. so familiarity has something to do with it. also, looking at the GSS conservative protestants who are college educated are less intelligent than other groups, so “correcting” for education does less than you’d think. there’s a correlation between edu. and intelligence, but only somewhat. the statistics i see for what % of mormons were converted from another religion is around 50%. but it’s a high churn religion. lot of these converts hang around only for part of their life, so the number of ex-mormons is rather high.Report

  10. BrianB says:

    “but the vast majority of atheists and agnostics were born into some faith tradition and later made the conscious choice to leave that tradition. ”
    Do you have a cite for this? I’m not saying it’s incorrect since I haven’t studied this but it’s contrary to my personal experience. I’m not religious and no one in my family is and this has been true going back at least to my great-grandparents. In addition, everyone I can think of in “real” life (as opposed to online life) who is an atheist or agnostic comes from a non religious family.
    Thanks in advance!

  11. razib says:

    “Do you have a cite for this? I’m not saying it’s incorrect since I haven’t studied this but it’s contrary to my personal experience.”

    i have a cite,

    “Most Nones are 1st generation – only 32% of “current” Nones report they were None at age 12.”Report

  12. BrianB says:

    Thank you! That article article was fascinating.

  13. CLS says:

    One correction: Mormonism is not the fastest growing religion in America. It isn’t growing at all. Their membership has been stagnant for years. This is actually bad given their higher fertility rates. It implies that they are losing their own young. And studies of the new converts show them to be relatively poor, relatively uneducated and significantly older.

    The one belief system that is actually growing rapidly is non-believers. Previous Pew surveys back this all up.Report