A Philosopher's Blog

Faith & Ignorance

Posted in Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on October 8, 2010
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A recent Pew survey revealed that Americans are rather ignorant in regards to religion. Interestingly, Catholics did the worst while atheists and agnostics did best in terms of what they knew.

The finding about ignorance  matches my own experience. When people find out that I am a philosophy professor, the talk often turns to the matter of religion. When I was younger, I was rather surprised at how little people knew about even their own professed faiths, but I soon came to expect this as the norm. While I do expect this, it does bother me that so many people do not seem to know what it is they strongly profess to believe. What dismays me even more is the fact that people are generally not inclined to correct this ignorance nor often interested in subjecting their beliefs to some critical thought.

I am not surprised that atheists and agnostics know the most about religion. One reason is that atheists and agnostics are often (but obviously not always) reasonably well educated. As such, they would tend to know more about religion. Another contributing factor is that some people end up as atheists or agnostics after trying out various faiths-hence they will often have a broader base of experience to drawn upon. A third factor is that people who are more critical and inquisitive will often tend towards atheism and agnosticism and such people are more likely to know more about various faiths. A fourth possible factor is that a broader knowledge base actually tends to lead people towards atheism and agnosticism. That is, perhaps atheists and agnostics believe what they do because they know more about religion. After all, seeing so many people sincerely devoted to beliefs that are at least inconsistent with each other would incline a person towards skepticism about religion.

Of course, I have (anecdotally) found that it is not uncommon for atheists and agnostics to be ignorant of the philosophical arguments for God’s existence. However, most folks are ignorant of these arguments.

In terms of what religious people would tend to know less about other faiths, one obvious reason is that if someone thinks they have the correct answer, there is little reason to learn about other faiths. Some might be inclined to say that people of faith are more likely to be ignorant and lacking in intellectual curiosity   (or vice versa). This is, perhaps, a possibility.

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33 Responses

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  1. Nick said, on October 8, 2010 at 8:43 am

    Interesting read. Thanks for sharing. I think my experience is similar to yours with the exception of people being ignorant to the philosophical arguments for God.

    Perhaps it is because I have been in higher ed. settings in my most recent past and present, but I seem to find a moderate-high awareness of the arguments (if not by name, then by content), especially among atheists and agnostics. It would seem that many of the atheist and agnostic folks I have met are simply unswayed by such arguments, either because they are ‘devout’ about the non-existence of a God or they do not think that a simple syllogism is enough to convince them.

    I also find it interesting that many medium to large Christian evangelical congregations usually spend a portion of their yearly sermon calendar of the arguments for God; I would like to understand the purpose of such teaching–it seems redundant.

    You wouldn’t happen to have the source of the ‘Pew survey’ would you?

  2. kernunos said, on October 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

    “One reason is that atheists and agnostics are often (but obviously not always) reasonably well educated. As such, they would tend to know more about religion.” – sounds like a fallacy. Highly educated in A does not make you more knowledgeable of B. As an example Obama is highly educated yet is not so smart when it comes to economics.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 8, 2010 at 11:41 am

      I don’t think it is a fallacy. Now, it might be argued that “educated” merely means something like “went to school.” In that case, a person could be educated and lack knowledge. To use an analogy, if someone says they are athletic, but they just mean they hung out around the gym and got no benefit, then they are not really athletic. I used “educated” in the sense that the person was actually educated (that is, learned something).

      • kernunos said, on October 8, 2010 at 4:41 pm

        You are VERY educated but I wouldn’t trust you with changing a head gasket on my car. Education has many different fields to say one is very educated is vague at best. You make a statement that someone being very well educated most likely knows more about someones religion than the religious person themself. I say hog-wash.

        • Erik said, on October 8, 2010 at 7:23 pm

          Right. The religious person knows his religion better than an outsider. That’s why funadamental Christians interpret the same Bible differently from UCC members I guess. Explains why we can’t believe a muslim when she says its a peaceful religion right?.

          • kernunos said, on October 9, 2010 at 10:32 pm

            What is the outsider?

            • Erik said, on October 12, 2010 at 8:29 am

              Someone not of the same religion I’d assume.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 11, 2010 at 5:22 pm

          In general, a well educated person would tend to know more about any subject than someone less well educated. Naturally, the specifics of the situation would have to be taken into account. For example, I might be better educated than someone, but he might know much more about how to repair a gun or grow pot. Of course, this is because the person in question is better educated in that field.

  3. kernunos said, on October 8, 2010 at 10:40 am

    My experience is only perception but it seems as if Atheists are outwardly anti-religious in a proactive way. They walk around with arguments already formulated in their heads just waiting for someone to sau ‘God bless you’…..and the trap is sprung. Obsesses even.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 8, 2010 at 11:38 am

      Depends on the atheist. Some are attack atheists, but many are not. Of course, the atheists who are not provocative tend not to be noticed.

    • Nick said, on October 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm

      Kernunos: I think Laborssierre is right here. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris may have made atheism look like it is something to be marketed…kind of like some religious folks who have a lot of face time on televised media, and therefore skewed the popular ‘perception’ of atheism (and religion). However, I doubt ‘all’ atheists are as gung-ho as those three.

      I am not sure if there is a book about it, but if there was such a book about the soapbox atheists/agnostics, it should be titled ‘Evangelical Atheism.’

      • kernunos said, on October 8, 2010 at 4:44 pm

        Hang out on this blog for a while. I know of two who are not famous that hang out here once in a while. That is just this blog. This has just been my experience though. Atheists have something to prove otherwise they would be agnostic.

      • Erik said, on October 8, 2010 at 7:11 pm

        “However, I doubt ‘all’ atheists are as gung-ho as those three. ”
        Why?
        All muslims are are potential jihadis. Can’t all atheists be gungho?

        • kernunos said, on October 9, 2010 at 10:30 pm

          Yes, but to be atheist is to make a statement. It is almost an extrovert act in itself or you just wouldn’t care and you wouldn’t be anything religiously.

          • Erik said, on October 13, 2010 at 8:51 am

            Why would an atheist aim to be something religiously?
            Aren’t jihadis making a statement?
            Do you with my genearization about all muslijms?

            • kernunos said, on October 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

              An Atheist takes aim at religion by saying there is no God. They can’t help but be involved. You make it sound like an atheist is indifferent but by definition an atheist cannot be indifferent.

            • Erik said, on October 16, 2010 at 9:33 pm

              But you said “or you just wouldn’t care or you just wouldn’t be anything religiously”. Thats basically what many many atheists are ‘by definitiion’ isn’t it. If religion wouldn’t already be in place atheists wouldn’t be anything religiously. Why should that change just because religion is there.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 11, 2010 at 5:18 pm

        My own experience has been that atheists seem to be at least as diverse as theists when it comes to pushing “the faith.” Of course, this is based on my own limited experiences, most of which are in a academic context.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 9, 2010 at 2:36 am

    The problem extends even to what people mean when they use the term “God.” If you try to pin them down they can’t say what they actually believe in.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 11, 2010 at 5:23 pm

      That is a problem. I start the faith & reason section of my intro class with my story about how when people ask me “do you believe in God?”, I ask “what do you mean by ‘God’?” It is a surprisingly hard question to answer properly.

  5. Greg Camp said, on October 9, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I agree with LaBossiere on what it means to be educated. An educated person must know about religion, since that field has had such a defining influence on the whole of its society. Without taking religion into account, the world simply doesn’t make sense.

    My own experience has been that those of us who aren’t believers in the mainstream religion tend to know more about religion in general and the dominate one in particular beacue we’re often called upon to defend our own infidelity. When I was in college, I took great pleasure in holding a Bible study with the theology majors. It was fun to show them what’s actually in the book that they claim as the basis of their lives.

    Regarding the headgasket comment, there’s no evidence either way as to the Professor’s ability on that subject, so we must remain agnostic. Contrary to Plato, a philospher can also be a car mechanic without contradiction.

  6. kernunos said, on October 9, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    “Regarding the headgasket comment, there’s no evidence either way as to the Professor’s ability on that subject, so we must remain agnostic. Contrary to Plato, a philospher can also be a car mechanic without contradiction.” – I have the evidence. Tghe ‘Blue Beast’ proves everything I have peddled.

    • kernunos said, on October 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

      “It was fun to show them what’s actually in the book that they claim as the basis of their lives.” – I’m sure you taught them a thing or two. I don’t think I would trust you to change my head gasket either. You up for the challenge?

  7. kernunos said, on October 9, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    “I agree with LaBossiere on what it means to be educated. An educated person must know about religion….” – Really, you have to know about religion to be educated? So a nuclear physicist that has never even cared or given much attention to religion is uneducated? Is this only philosophers defining what is educated now?

  8. magus71 said, on October 12, 2010 at 2:52 am

    I disagree greatly that most religious people don’t know much about their religion. Most atheits I know couldn’t tell me what John 3;16 says, even though it’s the most cliche Bible verse out there.

    And many Muslims memorize the whole Koran.

    What you really mean, Mike, is that atheists know more about atheist arguments against religion. On that, I’ll agree. i on the other hand always look at the atheists arguments and have found them as equally lacking as any zealot’s.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

      Well, the Pew survey seems to be reasonable evidence for the claim that atheists and agnostics know more. While the survey could provide a conclusion that does not match the general population (polls are inductive generalizations after all), unless there are grounds for believing it is flawed, the conclusion seems adequately supported.

      It, as a I mentioned, also matches my own experience in years of teaching. I teach a section on faith & reason in my intro class and also a section on religion & ethics in my ethics class. As such, I get a chance to see what people know about religion.

      There are actually some rather good arguments for the agnostic position and others for the atheist’s position. Interestingly, many philosophers tend to argue for agnosticism rather than atheism. An excellent example is David Hume.

      • magus71 said, on October 13, 2010 at 9:45 am

        Well, I wrote a long response and my connection died.

        Here’s my synopsis:

        1) The poll has trouble telling us what is considered “religious’ if it’s people categorizing themselves, that’s a problem. It can mean too many things to many people.

        2) Your students are not a good sample for measuring average religious knowledge. They’re taking philosphy classes and many are philosophy majors. They should know more. I’m sure you get good arguments for religion, too.

        3) I stopped quoting the Bible in debates with Atheists because I found they knew so little about what it said, it killed the debate by killing common ground. This is true even with educated people.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on October 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm

          1) That is a problem inherent to any poll that asks people to self identify. But, it could be a problem since people do (as you note) have varying definitions. So, their self-sorting may be incorrect.
          2) True, they should know more.

          • Anonymous said, on October 16, 2010 at 6:29 pm

            “On questions about Christianity – including a battery of questions about the Bible – Mormons (7.9 out of 12 right on average) and white evangelical Protestants (7.3 correct on average) show the highest levels of knowledge. Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism; out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answer 7.9 correctly (nearly three better than the national average) and atheists/agnostics answer 7.5 correctly (2.5 better than the national average). Atheists/agnostics and Jews also do particularly well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion”

            http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

            What a surprise. Christians know more about Christianity and Atheists know more about Hinduism…

            -magus71

        • kernunos said, on October 14, 2010 at 4:37 pm

          I think the ‘common ground’ is very telling. Like politicians that know better on what is good for us the educated like to interpret everything for just about anyone. Religion is faithed based. Yes it has teachings and rules but to sit there and tell someone what their ‘faith’ is wrong seems a bit silly.

  9. All Paths to God | Chapin City Blues said, on January 21, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    […] Faith & Ignorance (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) This entry was posted in Religion and tagged Adam, Agnosticism, Buddhism, Buddhist, Chico, Christianity, El Senor, God, Huston Smith, Religion and Spirituality, Stephen Prothero. Bookmark the permalink. ← “I hear they drown their young in bathtubs.” LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  10. bri said, on April 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    being as how im only 16 dont discredit anything im about to say…..these are just opinions im not a scholar and only halfway “educated”…but honestly ive grown up in the church of christ…live in a town where everyybdyy.or so it seems. is a believer in god,jesus somthing along those lines.i can say that majority of these people are only putting on nice fronts..cant tell you anything but waht the person beside them was doing last saturday or what they were wearing that sunday………..this is what is wrong with religion in genral today….not saying that i am perfect, but the people have modernized and made religion to fit their own needs. the show and cherade is what is most important and it wud make sense tht atheists know more about their religion….the one thing i can say about an atheist is that they know why they dnt believe….most ppl believe becz they were brougth up that way, everybody does it, or they want to use it as a problem solver when they see it fit………..this is why ive chosen to research and determine what i believe on my own………..everybody needs something too believe in this i agree with, but what yu believe is a personal choice and cannot be judged as “right” or “wrong” by anybody else…


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