Atheists outperform believers on religion quiz; Internet shits itself

My Facebook feed is just…covered in this story. Atheists Outdo Some Believers in Survey on Religion. Since I am perpetually hyperconscious of being perpetually out of the loop, I just had to know what everyone was talking about, and this is what it says:

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions […]

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

Sure enough, at the top of the list are atheists/agnostics, followed razor-close behind by Jews and Mormons. Evangelicals, Catholics and mainline Protestants follow.

I find it interesting that the researchers want to reassure us that they controlled for racial differences and other factors, because this is the infographic the NY Times posts with the story:

In the lead are white, white and white

At the bottom are black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics. Fine. Then notice in the middle are white evangelicals, white Catholics, and white Protestants. Fine. At the top, again, are atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons. In other words: disproportionately white, mostly white, and overwhelmingly white. I suppose what they mean about controlling for age and racial differences is that nonbelievers, Jews and Mormons clearly outperform other white people of similar age and educational attainment. Differences in distribution of age, race and education were not sufficient to explain the differences in quiz results by religious affiliation (or lack of it). I expect the 32 questions were put together by a handful of white people. Not that they deliberately engineered the quiz to leave black and brown people mystified, just that when the time came to write the quiz, no black or brown people were involved.

Then there’s selection bias. The folks who answered the questions are not a random sampling of believers and nonbelievers in America. They are a random sampling of believers and nonbelievers in America who are willing to participate in a survey over the phone. If I got a phone call from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the call center rep would probably get about as far as “We’d like to ask you some questions about your knowledge of world religions and—” before I hung up and went back to gawking at the comments on RH Reality Check. These are the people who are willing to talk to a cold caller. They are probably either more knowledgeable or more eager to show off than the general population. Though even with that in mind, it is interesting that the heathens, Jews and Mormons are so close together.

Here are some edited highlights:

Fifty-three percent of Protestants could not identify Martin Luther as the man 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 Christ.

Forty-three percent of Jews did not know that Maimonides, one of the foremost rabbinical authorities and philosophers, was Jewish.

Does this information tell us anything we didn’t previously know? I don’t feel moved one way or the other, but I’ve been a godless heathen since elementary school. I doubt it’ll lead to believers thinking of atheists and agnostics any differently, either. If you figure we’re going to Hell, then it really doesn’t matter if we know more about Hinduism and Buddhism than you do.