Why Surveys and Polls about Religion, Theism, and Atheism are Useless

A recent survey found here which deals with religious literacy of the general population focusing on four groups (Catholicism, Protestantism, atheism, and–oddly–agnosticism (which makes absolutely no sense)) prompted me to consider another study done a few months ago.   This other study measured IQ’s of young adults and focused on four categories or groups as well (liberals, atheists, the religious, and conservatives) and came to the conclusion that liberals and atheists were smarter, overall, than those who aligned themselves in a more conservative, religious way.

But I wonder how realistic these polls and studies really are.  One headline for the survey mentioned above is “Want to know about religion? Go to your local atheist, not your priest.”  Seriously?  I think neither should be consulted.  If you want to know more about religion, consult a scholar.  I know atheists who I would prefer not give any advice to anyone about any subject; just because you lack a belief in a God doesn’t mean you have a high IQ, nor does it mean you are smart enough to grasp basic logic (some people, after all, are raised without belief in a God and are de facto atheists).  While I know that the survey doesn’t claim, explicitly, that all atheists are more knowledgeable than certain Christian groups about religion, I just don’t think it matters.  An atheist is probably going to do less with that knowledge than a Christian will, regardless of how much they know, unless they’re a scholar (and if that is the case, they should be trusted based upon the merit of their work and not because they are an atheist).

Polls like this do nothing but generate a false notion of controversy.  If a survey came out next year that more atheists hold advanced degrees in religious studies than religious people, I wouldn’t be surprised (though, I imagine it would not be far from the truth).  But would it matter?   I don’t believe that atheists should be heralding these studies as victories, nor should they be parroting them to people they want to confront.  On the flip side of the coin, I’m not certain how useful this response is.   Jim West is known for calling atheists fools, but you don’t see me throwing this study in his face, immaturely (or ironically; however one might do it).  I just don’t find it particularly meaningful.  Jim knows as well as I do that the people who should be educating the population about religion aren’t heard because their voices don’t carry nearly as far as these silly Pew polls do on the matter.   As Bart Ehrman wrote on the influence of the Passion of the Christ movie, “How will such people [who saw the Passion of the Christ-ed.], probably for the rest of their lives, think about Jesus’ last hours? They’ll think about them in light of what they saw portrayed on the big screen. Mel Gibson, much more then Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, will effect how people understand Jesus’ death, for at least the coming generation.” This sad truth, when understood at its root context–that being the influence of the media over academic investigations–is seen in polls and studies like these where the only people truly left in ignorance is the public, led to a lie that atheism is the One True position of wisdom and knowledge.  In truth, some atheists are going to know more than Christians and, on the flip side of it, some Christians are going to know more than atheists.  And a survey done by a poll from the media is not going to statistically show any real result that could be said to be a representation, statistically, of the world’s populations of atheists, Jews, Catholics, and Mormons.


Albert Einstein

Einstein professed no religious affiliation and often spoke ill of the myths of religion (i.e., his forward to Homer W. Smith's 'Man and His Gods' (Little, Brown and Co.: Boston, 1955).


To look at this another way, this sort of generalizing is not helpful, even when it is from a blogger you thoroughly enjoy reading (Staks’ blog is great, by the way).  The statement that “[i]n general, the more people learn about the religion they grew up in and the more they learn about other religions, the more likely they are to abandon their faith” is far from what the study suggests, and I’m not even certain if such a statement is true.  Sure, for some of us, the more we learn, the more we lean away from Dogma, Church decree, ecumenical law, or fundamentalist Apologetic exegesis.  To say that those who learn more about religion take religion less seriously might be a little disingenuous to say the least.  Some take it more seriously, or hold tighter to their faith in times of confrontation or conflict.  Others will drop ‘religion’ but keep ‘spirituality’ which, in a way, is just a religious exchange.  Yet a few will become agnostic theists, but hold to some epistemological views of their religious institution.  And, yes, some will leave faith entirely and profess their lack of belief.

Now, I am all for self-education.  I am all for learning things on your own, even when the task seems daunting.  However, there is more to religious education (and, most certainly, to the study of the  history of religions, to Biblical studies, to theology) than knowing whether or not a Catholic believes in transubstantiation or the transfiguration, whether they genuflect or stand when they pray, whether they know that Luther is the patriarchal figure of their particular sect or not.  Indeed, one might even argue that since many atheists are apostates, they learned these very things as Christians, Mormons, or Jews!  I know I had the most direct will to learn about religions when it was beneficial to my faith to do so.  Before I left Catholicism behind, I spent more time in the library reading the Early Church Fathers, educating myself on the foundations of my beliefs, than at any other point in my life.  But I did not learn about the realities of the social milieux which formed the groundwork for the formation of these religions until much later.  And I dare say most atheists outside of academia do not have a good grasp of this either.  I would venture to say that progressive Christians like James McGrath, Baptists like Jim West, Jewish scholars like James Tabor, and (if they would call themselves…) Catholics like Thomas Bolin and Thomas Thompson have more interesting things to say about the origins of Christianity, the socio-cultural landscape of the Christian and Jewish worlds of antiquity, and religion as a whole than many of the atheists with which I have spoken.  This is not due to their religious affiliations, but it is due to their academic ones.   While we may differ on other matters, and in some cases we might differ quite loudly, we would all agree, I think, that these polls serve little but to perpetuate a myth.  That myth–the myth that polls such as these can find a place outside the world of buzzwords and pundits–is a dangerous one indeed.

Looting the Holy Land

‘Looting the Holy Land special’ with interviews by Thomas L. Thompson and more!  Definitely worth checking out!

http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/2010/10/201010591416403822.html (English)

Jim West also blogged about this here: http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2010/10/11/looting-the-holy-land/ (Note: I had known about this as of 8:30AM this morning, and would have blogged it first if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids!)

Update: Another great post by Jim on this video, with some nifty screen shots of our friend Thomas Thompson:


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