The Unbelievable Truth: Why America has become a nation of religious know-nothings

By Daniel Dennett | 3 October 2010

Muslims pray in the middle of Madison Ave. before marching in a Muslim Parade in Manhattan.

The new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released this week, shocked many with the revelation that atheists and agnostics tend to know more about the world’s religions than believers do.

Pew researchers asked more than 3,000 Americans 32 central questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions. On average, people who took the survey got half the answers wrong – and many even tripped on basic questions about their own faith.

Fully 54% of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the person who started the Protestant Reformation. Forty-five percent of Catholics did not know that their church teaches that the consecrated bread and wine in holy communion are not merely symbols, but actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

But we shouldn’t be that surprised by the fact that supposedly faithful people had major gaps in knowledge about the religions in which they claim to believe. The explanation – or at least most of it – is not hard to see in the recent history of religion.

There was a time when the creeds of most religions could be accepted as unvarnished truth – “taken on faith” – by most of the flock without much cognitive dissonance, simply because humankind didn’t yet have a wealth of well-evidenced alternatives to the traditional answers.

However, since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, it has been downhill for literalism.

After Copernicus and the collapse of the idea that the Sun goes around the Earth, the idea that Heaven was Up There and Hell was Down Below had to be turned into metaphor. It is still potent imagery after several centuries, but it is treated as literally true by, well, hardly anybody.

The age of the Earth, the existence of billions of galaxies, the detailed confirmation of evolutionary biology, including our demonstrated close kinship to chimpanzees and indeed all other mammals – all these discoveries and many more have taken their toll on any literal understanding of the holy texts. Scholarship about the history of those texts has also made it more and more obvious that they are imperfect human artifacts with a long history of revision and adjustment, not eternal and unchanging gifts from God.

So what’s a religion to do? There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone’s creed – not even your own.

Plan B has been the choice of most religions and denominations, and the result, not surprisingly, is that most religiously affiliated people have no firm knowledge or even opinions about the finer points of any religion, including their own.

How, then, to explain the apparently contradictory fact that, according to Pew, atheists they surveyed knew the most about religion?

Atheists tend to be those curious and truth-loving folks who do take a good hard look at religious professions of faith, and hence they tend to know what they are walking away from. There have always been atheists, though not always very visible to the public. In fact, the perennial nagging doubts of the few atheists in the crowd have probably been the main force sustaining theology!

Most people are afraid of what they might discover if they read the fine print too carefully, so they sign on the dotted line without a glance, and then often feel the need to defend their lack of curiosity as an example of their holy trust in their own faith. But every generation has its restless doubters who are just not comfortable with the traditional formulas they are invited to profess by their religious leaders. They cast about, with great intelligence and ingenuity, for alternative formulations that they can assert with a clear conscience.

Those that find them are the theologians; those that don’t are the atheists, whether or not they leave their churches or just hunker down in silence.

In fact, some theologians are well-nigh indistinguishable from atheists. For example, Bishop John Shelby Spong, the liberal Episcopal author of “Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers In Exile” (1999) and many other books, and his British counterpart, the Anglican priest Don Cupitt, author of “Is Nothing Sacred?: The Non-Realist Philosophy of Religion” (2003) and many other books, are both regarded by fundamentalists and born-again Christians as atheists, plain and simple, and one can see why.

So the Pew results are no doubt actually somewhat stronger than they first appear: The more you know about religions, the less likely you are to believe religious creeds and myths and thus the more likely you are to be an atheist or agnostic, whether or not you are affiliated with, or even clergy in, a church.

Many of those who have thought long and hard about religions – and hence know the answers – don’t actually believe the doctrines that they rightly identify as belonging to the church they are affiliated with.

They know, for instance, what a good Catholic is “required to profess” as Pope Benedict (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) often said, and so, if they are Catholics, they profess it. But they find that they cannot actually believe it. Many people maintain their loyalty as vigorous members of their denominations while quietly setting aside the dogmas, either utterly ignored as irrelevant or wreathed in protective layers of metaphor.

The Pew study also reveals why atheist critiques of religious doctrines are largely a waste of effort: Few people believe them in any case; they just say they do.

The more interesting question is, why do they feel the need to say these things? And what consequences flow from this?

One effect is widespread and most unfortunate. We increasingly see pastors who no longer hold the beliefs they are professionally obliged to preach, but go on executing their duties for various reasons, some good, some not so good. These folks are caught in a web of what might be called designed miscommunication, and it takes an unmeasured toll on their consciences.

My colleague Linda LaScola and I are currently studying this phenomenon, and when discussing our first pilot study of closeted non-believing (or other-believing) clergy, we often heard two jokes about the seminary experience that was part of the training of most clergy: “If you emerge from seminary still believing in God, you haven’t been paying attention,” and “Seminary is where God goes to die.”

We are now looking for more volunteer clergy who want to tell us, in strict confidence, about how they deal with their own loss of faith in the doctrines of their own churches.

Daniel Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University, is the author of “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.”

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  1. It is one thing for atheists to understand intellectually that organized religion is false to the core. Quite another thing to get people to actively fight the institutions that are sowing the seeds of destruction.

  2. FABULOUS article. I'm one of those skeptics who couldn't accept doctrine as being the word of god (because it's the word of a bunch of guys through the ages who've decided they needed to save humanity through editing).

    Fortunately, I found a system of belief that teaches introspection and personal responsibility… Witchcraft. <3

  3. Facinating. Perhaps you missed a third option and glossed it over. In High Medieval times the world was layer upon layer of barons dukes and kings that the average person never saw any but the most local and bottom rungs, all of which had to be treated with great deference or be killed. The known universe was not even a quarter of the planet. In such a universe the idea that the universe was some sort of bell jar experiment by the ultimate king, as vain as the rest of the hierarchy did not create much cognitive dissonance.

    However in a world where democracy is at least the ideal, and a universe photographed in great detail by Hubble, the bell jar God is nothing but cognitive dissonance. For some the Bible is declared the ultimate encyclopedia, and that if disagreements exist with observations it is the observations that are wrong. This cannot stand careful analysis, so that to becomes forbidden.

    Many Atheists, finding the Bible of the Bell Jar God to be a terrible encyclopedia, reject everything with special citation to the horrors carried out in its name, or become theologians seeking to bandaid over the dissonance, and carry on as a way to achieve other goals (some noble and some not so much).

    But there is another way to look that all that is written, as done so by mostly very smart folk trying to pass on ideas (for reasons noble and not), and the actual existence of a god mostly immaterial to the idea, or like Murphy's laws, a personification of an idea not requiring an actual "Murphy".

    Looked at in this way there is much written for immoral purposes, mostly to give money and power to those who kept the books, but there is also much a church accomplishes, from local fellowship to great moral movements that have great value quite unrelated to the "bible as encyclopedia" idea.

    As noted Christianity is not as rich in such values as other religions, but it has many good ones, and the other religions make poor encyclopedias also. Perhaps Religion can evolve into a foundation of actual wisdom, that enables group action for noble causes and fellowship, and while it would use metaphors to difficult ideas across, and would eschew "magical thinking" that shortcuts step by step processes by the expected intervention of an actual metaphysical critter to do the heavy lifting for you.

  4. Interesting article. It asks, "The more interesting question is, why do they feel the need to say these things? And what consequences flow from this?" Personally I think many people see the order and design in Nature (the study of which is science) and they believe it did not just happen randomly. This leads them to believe in, as described in the Declaration of Independence, "Nature's God" or The Supreme Intelligence. Being brought up in a society where "revealed"/hearsay religions run deep, the too often feel that if they believe in this Force/Intelligence they should follow one of the "revealed"/hearsay religions. Their belief that the Universe did not just randomly happen is strong enough for them to reject Atheism. Unfortunately the vast majority of them are not aware that they have an alternative to both "revealed"/hearsay religions and to Atheism in Deism. Deism is simply belief in The Supreme Intelligence/God based on the application of reason on the laws and designs in Nature. A large majority pf the millions of people who are classified as "nones" actually hold Deistic beliefs but probably never even heard of Deism.

    Progress! Bob Johnson

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