A few years ago I was working for a state legislature campaign, and I was assigned to canvassing. My canvassing partner one day was a young woman from the Swift Creek neighborhood, which is a (proudly) unincorporated area just south of Raleigh. It was near one of the High Holidays, and so the fact came up that I was Jewish. The young woman was surprised - she had never actually met a Jew before, and knew absolutely nothing about my religion. She proceeded to ask a few questions ranging from simple theology (you don't believe in Jesus, right?) to the vaguely stereotypical (so are you all really tight with money?). But the point is: this young woman wasn't from East Bumblefuck - she had grown up in spitting distance of one of the most highly educated cities in America, and she knew nothing about Judaism.
Hold that thought.
Recently, the Pew Forum put out a survey of Americans' religious knowledge, and the result - that atheists and agnostics scored higher on it than anyone else - has led to predictable crowing from the atheist set. A sample, from Amanda Marcotte:
Turns out knowing more about the actual details of religion correlates more to rejecting. Religion reminds me of those insects that have showy, beautiful colorings. It seems really beautiful, but if you examine it up close, it’s actually a big, gross insect with hairy legs and overall creepy-crawliness.It's a fascinating narrative, but it's not supported by the actual facts. First, the numbers - Pew reports that while atheists do have the highest score overall, at 20.9 out of 32 questions correct, Jews and Mormons are right there within statistical significance at 20.5 and 20.3, respectively. Non-LDS Christians all come in between 17.6 and 11.6, depending on the branch. Furthermore, Pew - in an epic example of "burying the lede," reports later that
[d]ata from the survey indicate that educational attainment – how much schooling an individual has completed – is the single best predictor of religious knowledge. College graduates get nearly eight more questions right on average than do people with a high school education or less. Having taken a religion course in college is also strongly associated with higher religious knowledge.The more educated you are, the more knowledge you have about religions. That's so obvious that it's damn near tautological.
But I think there's something else at work here that separates atheists, Jews, and Mormons from the mainstream Christians. The three groups listed are the only three religious minorities surveyed by Pew (they missed Muslims for some reason). Out of 26 questions that Pew classified, 12 were on Christianity and the Bible, 11 were on other religions, and 4 were on religion's role in government. A test set up thus is going to be easier for minorities to succeed on, and here's why.
Recall my story. It's possible for a Christian in a fairly urbane area of the country to know absolutely nothing about Judaism, which is the "world religion" most known among Americans. But if you're Jewish and growing up in Raleigh, do you think there's any chance you'd grow up ignorant of the basic tenets of Christianity? Of course not. We live in a relatively Christianized culture (regardless of what blowhards like Bill O'Reilly would have you believe) where basic Christian beliefs are referenced almost daily. We basically learn about the belief in Jesus as the son of God, the story of his crucifixion, and the meaning of Christmas and Easter by osmosis by the time we reach adulthood. There's no way anyone living in America and participating fully in society would not know the basics of Christianity. Furthermore, being a religious minority makes you acutely aware of your religious identity. While most Christians have the luxury of not really thinking about religion as a differentiating tool (in the same way as white people can avoid thinking about race), Jews and atheists - and to some extent Mormons, who are Christian but often looked upon suspiciously by mainstream Christians - do not have that luxury. We're reminded that we're religious minorities every single day. As such, we're generally more keen to learn about religion since religious identity is such a huge part of the way other Americans see us.
The numbers demonstrate both of these trends. Pew reports that of the Christian questions, Mormons and white Evangelicals performed best (7.9 and 7.3 out of 11, respectively), but Jews and atheists knew as much as the average Christian. Jews got 6.3 and atheists got 6.7, and the average among all Christians was 6.2. However, on the world religion section, Jews and atheists outperformed everyone by a landslide - 7.9 and 7.5 out of 11, respectively, compared to a Christian average of 4.7. Ouch. Mormons lagged a bit, but were still the third-highest scorers on that section - they answered 5.6 correct. That's well enough to put them in the upper echelon when combined with their superior knowledge of Christianity.
In sum: Jews and atheists, forced every day to think about religions not their own, do better on questions about other religions. They do just as well as Christians on questions about Christianity because our culture is Christian and they learn it by default. Meanwhile, Christians, who have the luxury of being members of the dominant culture, don't do well when asked questions about religions they never have to think about unless they so desire. And this is surprising... how?