Pew survey shows atheists and agnostics lead in religious knowledge

A recent Pew survey reveals that atheists and agnostics have the most knowledge of world religions, and Mormons beat evangelicals in questions on Christianity.

While atheists and agnostics claim they do not have a religion, a recent study by The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that atheists and agnostics have more knowledge about world religions than Christians do.

Pew conducted the nationwide poll May 19 through June 16 among 3,412 Americans ages 18 and older. The survey showed that Mormons and evangelicals knew the most about Christianity, but atheists and agnostics knew the most about world religions. Out of 12 questions asked on the Bible and Christianity, evangelicals answered an average of 7.3 questions correctly while Mormons answered an average of 7.9 questions correctly.

Atheists, agnostics, and Jews did the best on the questions concerning world religions. Out of the 11 questions asked about world religions, Jews answered an average of 7.9 questions correctly and atheists and agnostics answered an average of 7.5 questions correctly. Christians, on the other hand, only answered an average of 4.7 questions about world religions correctly.

Interpreting the survey results

“Obviously we are religious in America,” said Wesley Chambers, a first-year philosophy student at Talbot. “So you’ve got a lot of people that maybe are atheist who had been around religion and maybe went to church growing up, so they’re going to know a lot more.”

Chambers said he thinks that a lot of Christians have a shallow knowledge of other religions. Atheists and agnostics have more of a desire to know about other religions because they are not rooted in one already.

Junior Andy Nowak agreed.

“Atheists I can kind of understand because they’re not invested in one religion,” he said. “The thing that strikes me as odd is that Christians seem so much more isolated than Mormons or Jews.”

Nowak said he was unsure of how he would do on a world religion survey. “I honestly don’t know that I would do that well [on world religion knowledge],” Nowak said. “I think I would do well on the Christianity part.”

“[Biola is] a Christian university, so you’re going to need students who have a good knowledge of Scripture, how to interpret it, and contextualize what it is saying,” Chambers said. “I think Biola students should be above and beyond the average Joe on the street.”

Americans differentiate between religions and beliefs

Dr. Mickey Klink, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies, said he feels that people in America are much more comfortable talking about general religious studies and place a historical value on religions. They never make a confessional statement or have a creed, because that is when they are getting into the personal area of belief that the government and society would be wary about. Americans can talk about religion comparatively, but not personally, Klink said.

“I’m not surprised,” Klink said about the study’s results.

Klink said evangelical teachers and institutions might be more likely to focus on biblical and theological knowledge rather than general religious knowledge. They would want to apply personal faith from the Bible itself into real life, he said.

Should Biola students lead in understanding world religions?

Chambers said he believes that, since Biola is a Christian university, Biola students should be at the forefront of the people who really understand Scriptures and other religions.

Klink, however, feels that Biola isn’t as interested in religious studies. Rather it is more interested in biblical studies, he said.

“Biola is actually saying that we are integrating a specific faith and that we are interested in engaging that faith to the real world,” Klink said.

David Talley, a professor of biblical and theological studies, agreed.

“Other religions, perhaps, tend toward the tolerant side of beliefs held by others, so any belief is fair game,” Talley said. “However, Christians hold to truth as is found in God’s word. Our focus is to teach truth, not necessarily understand world religions.

“Understanding world religions is of value and should be encouraged, but it is not the general focus in Christian circles, nor is it completely necessary, Talley continued. “Our strong desire is that Christians understand what the Bible teaches foremost of all.”

Biola focused on teaching the truth of Christianity alone

Klink said that, although Biola still offers some comparative religion classes and apologetics courses, the purpose of the classes is to compare them to what the Bible says, not to necessarily study their history and study their books as literature.

“We’d be more concerned to integrate Christian faith into the sciences, humanities, or all the other sub-disciplines than we would to integrate or compare Christianity to Islam,” Klink said. “Though there’s a value for that, and you might find certain people being called to that in some way for evangelism purposes or apologetics purposes, the average Christian, and probably the average church, is more concerned to integrate Jesus Christ into all these avenues of the world. Not necessarily just to do a loosely comparative analysis between the two.”

“I think it’s important to know where others come from and what their basic beliefs are,” said freshman Julie Dykes, a biblical studies major. “You can compare Christianity to their religion and better explain why it’s the truth.”

Dykes also said she feels that knowing the Bible is extremely important. She said that it would be hard for a Christian to share God and his Word with others if she doesn’t have that knowledge.

“It’s about engaging the truth in the real world and having it function in that real world, rather than just an educational thing,” Klink concluded.

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