In a recent Pew survey, self-identified atheists scores better than any subgroup on a quiz of religious knowledge. Jewish people scores almost as well, and Catholics ranked near the bottom. (Ah, my people!) At first, I thought this might be function of education — that skeptics and and Jews would tend to be better educated than the general population — but according to the times article, the difference obtains even after that factor is controlled for.
So the question is, Why? I've always been interested in religion, largely, I think, because I was devout as a child and became anti-devout later on. (And I aced the quiz.) I can't speak for all nonbelievers, but I think our relatively elevated religious awareness may be due to the fact that we are constantly called upon to defend ourselves. Being an atheist is like being a vegetarian: The first thing anyone does when you declare yourself is to try to talk you out of it. Keeping up with the competition becomes a good survival strategy. We also take the position that no one religion can claim a monopoly on truth — as opposed to the Catholic hierarchy, which does claim such a monopoly — and learning about other religions helps one make the case.
Catholics not only new less about other religions, they knew less about their own than other groups. And in all fairness, though, I should point out that there’s a lot to know about Catholicism. Dogmas have been collecting for thousands of years, and Catholics aren’t sending their kids to parochial schools in the same numbers that they used to. That’s where we had all that stuff drilled into us. Who would suspect, for example, that Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of doctors, pharmacists and hairdressers? Transubstantiation, anyone? Pop quiz: Explain the distinction between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
On a side note, I have to say I rather resented the reporter asking the head of American Atheists (O’Hare’s group) for a quote. I suppose they have to go to the most obvious organization, much as they automatically go to Catholic bishops for anything having to do with religion, but for the record, these people do not speak for me. They always struck me as a too angry, and true to form, the guy said something predictably snarky. I’ve read the Bible. There are parts I like. Here, to close, is my favorite verse, Isaiah 1:13-17 (NRSV):
Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.