Knowing more about what you don’t believe: Atheists and agnostics outperform religious individuals on basic world religions test

A recent article in the New York times discusses survey research that demonstrated that atheists and agnostics (as well as Jews and Mormons) outperformed all other religious groups (e.g., evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants, Catholics)  on a religious test.  The test, given by Pew Survey Research, asked questions about the Bible, Christianity, and other world religions.  Questions included items such as: Where was Jesus born? What is Ramadan? What religion is the Dalai Lama? Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation?  On average out of 32 questions, atheists/agnostics answered 20.9 questions correctly, Jews answered 20, and Mormons answered 20.3 correctly, while white evangelical Protestants answered 17.6 and White Catholics answered 16 questions correctly.  Other religions are included in the survey (see article).

As a researcher of religion, I am perplexed yet not surprised by these findings.  As expected, evangelical Protestants answered the most questions correctly on questions regarding the Bible and Christianity.  However, when it came to knowing about world religions as well, they fell short.  Perhaps it is because an enormous amount of time is spent trying to become knowledgeable about one’s own faith.  Perhaps it is because evangelicals openly reject other world religions and so do not study them.  However, I suspect that cognitive complexity and intelligence levels may play a role as well.

Evangelicals tend to be more fundamentalist about their religion.  Religious fundamentalism is linked with thinking less complexly about issues (Pancer, Jackson, Hunsberger, Pratt, & Lea, 1995) as well representing resistance to change (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).  Thus, the differences in these results could be tied to the broader implication that highly religious individuals engage in less cognitive processing about other religions.  But it becomes difficult to explain the results for religions like Catholicism, which are not traditionally fundamentalist yet performed more poorly on the test.

On a related but different note, I am also curious what would happen to the results if you controlled for education level or intelligence level.  Although controlling for racial and age differences did not affect the results, I would expect that controlling for an education or intelligence variable might.  Atheists/agnostics may simply represent a more intellectual elite, especially considering the idea that there are a higher number of non-believers in higher education.  I think the confound of intelligence and belief needs to be addressed before fully concluding that atheism is the reason people know more about world religions.

Nevertheless, this article sheds light on a timely and interesting topic.  I am now left to ponder if atheists’ knowledge of these world religions influences their behavior in any way.  That is another study for me to do to find out.


Jost, J.J., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A.W., & Sulloway, F.J. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.  Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

Pancer, S. M., Jackson, L. M., Hunsberger, B., Pratt, M. W., & Lea, J. (1995). Religious orthodoxy and the complexity of thought about religious and nonreligious issues. Journal of Personality, 63, 213–232.

About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

One response to “Knowing more about what you don’t believe: Atheists and agnostics outperform religious individuals on basic world religions test

  • Patrick Shen

    I read this article this morning. It’s a troubling and interesting topic. It was yet another reminder on how we should be as “innocent as doves and as wise as serpents”.

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