A recent survey indicates that when it comes to religion, atheists and agnostics know more about the subject than do those that actually believe in the superstitions of their particular faith. What does that say about religion in general, and particularly about knowledge? Many atheists, especially those that regularly debate theists, find that the Christians’ understanding of their own scriptures are often quite deficient, sometimes bordering on the nonsensical. On the flip side, many an atheist will tell you that it was the Bible that caused their atheism; that a good, thorough reading of the Bible, with all its violence, immorality, and contradictions, is more than enough to turn anyone off of religion, especially Christianity. But in order to have the Bible spark such a response, one must be knowledgeable about the Bible in the first place.
Which explains the results of this survey. Atheists as a whole know more about religion than do people of faith. Why? Because knowledge is important to us, on the assumption that the best way to understand and believe in something is to know about it. But once you know even a little about religion, it is easy to reject it as a delusional, superstitious holdover from our past, rather than the means to ascertaining all truth. Actual knowledge of religion, placed in its proper historical, cultural and sociological context, dictates such a conclusion.
One of the reasons for this is the old chicken/egg argument -which came first, the Bible or faith? Given the fact than many people who profess to believe could not articulate a good reason for their belief, and given the results of this survey, it seems that many people believe in the Bible because belief comes first. They want to believe in something, they have this sense, this feeling, that there is something beyond them to believe in, but they don’t know empirically what it is, so along comes a religion with a book that says “here’s everything you need to believe” and they swallow it hook, line and sinker. They may say they read the book, but they don’t read it critically to determine what truth it holds, but rather to confirm the belief they already hold. That is why it is one of the most cherry-picked sources of authority in the world. Those portions of the book that contradict their beliefs are simply ignored.
In effect, they don’t need to know anything. They simple need the desire to believe in something – what Daniel Dennett calls “belief in belief” – and they’re off and running. Knowledge of anything, then, isn’t the point of religion, so it’s no wonder that the religious might fare worse than atheists regarding their knowledge of religion.
Here’s a good example:
An overwhelming 89 percent of respondents, asked whether public school teachers are permitted to lead a class in prayer, correctly answered no.
But fewer than one of four knew that a public school teacher is permitted “to read from the Bible as an example of literature.” And only about one third knew that a public school teacher is permitted to offer a class comparing the world’s religions.
Christians, for instance, will tell you that their god hears all prayers, that he knows everything, even your deepest thoughts. Jimmy Carter once confessed to committing adultery by simply thinking about (lusting after) other women. Yet since the Supreme Court outlawed teacher-led prayers in school, you’d be hard pressed to find a Christian who doesn’t believe that “God has been kicked out of public schools”, in effect believing that no one can pray at school. Balderdash, but why know something when you can believe the opposite? Any child can pray anytime he/she wants to in school, provided it doesn’t disrupt the class and that the teacher isn’t forcing him/her to do so.
Try explaining that to a Christian who doesn’t want to believe it, and you’ll understand the meaning of the phrase “falls on deaf ears”.