Are You Smarter Than an Atheist?

I am.

At least according to a quiz put out by the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life.

The quiz has 32 questions, of which atheists in America who took the quiz got an average of 20.9 questions right. American Jews got 20.5 right, American Mormons 20.3 right, American Protestants 16 right, and American Catholics 14.7 right.

I got all of them, but that’s nothing special since this is the field I work in professionally. I’m expected to know my own field. Give me a comparable quiz on another topic and watch the number plummet. I can say with great confidence that if you gave me a 32-question quiz on sports—something very large numbers of people would do very well on—I would be lucky to get even a handful of questions right.

However that may be, what are we to make of the numbers regarding the different groups? Pretty dismal for Catholics, right?

Not necessarily, and it depends on what you mean.

This is not a case of “Catholics don’t know their own faith but other groups do know theirs.” The quiz is not religion-specific. It’s pan-religious. So the majority of questions on the quiz do not relate to the faith of the person taking the quiz, but to other people’s faiths. And therein lies a significant reason for why the numbers line up as they do.

What do the three high-scoring groups have in common? They are all religious minorities in America. That’s significant because a religious minority has special reason not only to understand its own religion (so as to reinforce its intra-group religious identity) but also to understand the religions of those around it (because of the need to understand how to interact with the majority religion that surrounds it). A person in a religious minority has special reason to understand both the basics of his own faith and the basics of the majority faith. A person in the majority faith has special reason only to understand the latter.

A Jew in Israel or an atheist in China would have less reason to know the basics of Christianity than a Jew or an atheist in America.

When you look at the two mainstream American religious groups—Protestants and Catholics—they score both less than the minorities and quite close to each other (only 1.3 questions separating them, which may well be within the poll’s margin of error).

Then there’s selection bias in who chose to take the poll. Perhaps atheists are more motivated to take a (rather long) 32-question quiz than Catholics. Who knows? This is a perennial problem of surveys.

The questions in the poll are also likely to distort results in other ways, too. I counted at least three questions that were Mormon-specific but only two that were Catholic-specific. Who is that going to advantage?

There were also three questions on what public school teachers are and aren’t allowed to do in America regarding religion. That is a subject that atheists will be far more focused on (and thus likely to get right) than ordinary Christians. (It’s also worth noting that Catholics have their own parallel school system and many do not even use the public schools, giving them less reason to be familiar with the details of what is allowed.)

These last questions also aren’t actually about religion but about American politics regarding religion. Something similar applies to another set of three questions regarding what the majority religion is in particular countries (India, Indonesia, Pakistan). Those aren’t questions about religion but about the demographics of other countries. (Hey, everybody! Quick! What’s the majority religion in Gambia? It sure tells you a lot about religion if you happen to know that the answer is Islam, doesn’t it? You’re much more informed about religion if you know that.)

So . . . it’s not the most informative quiz in terms of religious knowledge. Nor is the news for Catholics as bad as the raw numbers suggest. The quiz simply isn’t a test of how much Catholics know about their own faith.

That’s not to say that Catholic religious education hasn’t been a disaster in the last generation. It has been.

That’s not exclusively the fault of the clerical class. Parents in many families did not do their part to see to their children receiving a proper religious education. But when many elements of the clerical class have been actively and deliberately subverting the teaching of Catholic doctrine, it’s going to contribute to the poor state of religious knowledge among Catholics today.

One bit of sort-of-encouraging news from the Pew survey was that 55% of Catholics were able to correctly identify their Church’s teaching regarding the status of bread and wine in the Eucharist. That’s not nearly what it should be, but it’s at least better than the Gallup poll a number of years ago that started the false rumor that it was far less.

This quiz isn’t the greatest, but quizzes are fun, so have at it . . .

ARE YOU SMARTER THAN AN ATHEIST? (Be sure to write down your answers as you go; the answers are given at the end of the last question.)