September 28, 2010

"Know nothing new atheists"

A few days ago had a discussion with a philosopher (himself not religious) who railed against those whom he called "Know nothing new atheists" who argued against religion on a very low-level and were not aware of the best of modern theology. I pressed him to name names but the ones he gave (Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers) do not fit this category at all. In fact, they know quite a lot. But I occasionally find the philosopher's attitude among atheists and agnostic accommodationists who seek to separate themselves from people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Coyne, Myers, and other mean old new/unapologetic atheists (like me), and accuse us of ignorance.

Hence it was amusing to get a link (thanks to reader Norm) to an article giving the results of a new Pew survey that found that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable about "the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life." You can read all the survey questions and the results for each here. (Not to boast, but there was only one question for which I did not know the answer and one for which I was not sure.)

Of course, the philosopher could argue that this survey tested largely low-level factual knowledge and not deep theology. But I am willing to bet that if a similar survey were done on theology, atheists and agnostics would again come out on top. It is because we have studied theology at least to some extent that we realize how content-free it is. In fact, I suspect there is a causal relationship: the more you know about religion, the less likely you are to believe in god. As Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, said, "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."


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In light of Silverman's point, this study by Daniel Dennett and Linda LaScola on clergy who have lost their faith is very interesting: It turns out that for several of those interviewed, their loss of belief was in fact produced by their theological education.

Posted by Steve LaBonne on September 28, 2010 03:09 PM

I'm a relocated Yankee living in the Bible-belt south. According to this survey, they are the least educated about religion with all else being equal. This is not surprising, given the generation to generation indoctrination the culture down here supports. In the few times I've attempted a rational discussion with some of the "locals" about religion, they adopted the "don't upset me by saying there is no god" attitude you wrote about earlier this month. Maybe a better idea would be to actually educate them on the religion they claim to believe in. Unfortunately, I think the people down here are a lost cause.

Sort-of-related, on NPR today there was a story about one of the backyard forums President Obama has been participating in recently. Someone asked him about his religion, so he went on and on about the power of Christ dying for his sins. Then he said that he was not brought up in a religious environment but instead became a Christian later in life. That's scary. I can understand (sort of) if someone is indoctrinated before they know any better, but for the leader of our country to learn about religion as an adult and think it is a good idea?

Posted by Matt on September 29, 2010 09:54 AM

Great blog, Manu ... thanks! (I, too, missed one on the Pew questions.) And thanks also to Steve for the reference to the excellent article on clergy and faith.

Posted by Harry on September 29, 2010 10:04 AM

@Matt....and Others. Clearly, at least in my opinion, Obama was telling the press, as well as others, what they wanted to hear or at least what would be the "Proper" answer to the question posed to him. Of course someone in his position is going to spew qualified dogma to the otherwise unenlightened masses that surely "expect" to hear an "appropriate" response to this obvious question.
A man as educated as Obama probably came to the conclusion a long time ago that the Christian idea of "God" revered in this Country is at the very least, questionable. For him to say otherwise in this climate of distrust would bury him, and the rightwing vultures of deceit would have a veritable feast on what would be left of him. This is not "scary" at all but rather cautious politics. Would you admit in believing in anything other than that which a majority of your governed population believes in?
Imagine ruling in a country where a Flying Spaghetti Monster is the most popular form of Deity....and you tell everyone you actually follow the teachings of the Great Purple People Eater.......wouldn't go over so well, would it.

Posted by SteveG on October 3, 2010 11:17 AM