A supposedly-surprising finding


A lot of people have been linking to this story, about a survey that shows atheists and agnostics are more knowledgable about religion than religious folks.

Me, I’m not sure why this would be a surprise. Few people are raised as atheists in this country; most of them come by their lack of belief after much reflection and many challenges from their loved ones. From strangers, too. When’s the last time you heard the phrase “No Jews in foxholes!”

That would be never (I hope). I also hope no one reading this has been told “How can you be a Lutheran (or whatever)?” by your boss.

The truth is, religion is such a powerful force in this culture that atheists learn about it as a matter of self-defence. In fact, I took a shortened form of the test online (which I can’t find now, being at work). I scored a 93%, getting one answer wrong–sorry, all Jewish people everywhere–and I’m not even one of those people who thinks religion is some kind of dangerous delusion that needs to be refuted point by point. Personally, I think it’s mildly interesting in short doses. Mostly I don’t care. Still, I’ve felt the pressure to study up.

And this is why atheists even bristle at the term “atheist.” Even our language is biased to consider religious belief the standard.

By contrast, many religious believers, including many of my friends, are believers in what I think of as Culture-God. Not necessarily the God of [Religious Text], but the version of God that suits their view of the world–the supreme being that will intercede in hospitals, reward whatever deeds the citizen considers good ones, supports whatever political positions seem most reasonable, and absolutely disapproves of Those Guys Over There.

It’s not so much about the sacred text, or religious traditions, or the history of their faith. It’s about the cultural undertow that assumes every person has some sort of belief in a higher power–that assumes that people who don’t have such a belief are untrustworthy, damaged or incomplete in some way. A few months back I linked to a survey that showed more Americans would be willing to vote for a gay person for president than would vote for an atheist.

Now, one thing I am absolutely not saying is that all religious people are religious only because the culture expects it. That would be silly and wrong on its face. Of course people hold to their faith with deep and powerful convictions, often after careful consideration.

What I am saying is that it’s so tremendously easy to be a believer in our culture that many many people do it with barely a thought. How knowledgable would you expect such people to be?

Added note: This is my 1,000th blog post. Hmph.