Sunday, October 03, 2010

Religiously Smart Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Not!

I know it has been a while since I have posted, but it has been summer vacation and took a writing break. Not sure how often this blog will be updated with my thoughts and ideas. A subject came up that I wanted to comment about.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had a survey where Atheists, Jews, and Mormons scored higher than other groups. The conclusion has been that Atheists are smarter than all the groups because they answered more questions than the others. At least that is how blogs and mainstream news has reported the issue. Even some Mormons have congratulated themselves for knowing so much compared to those nasty Evangelical Christians.

However, when you really get down to the numbers all of this turns out to be much ado about very little. First, the survey only had 32 multiple choice questions. Pop quizzes usually have more than that in any given college classroom. Lets actually look at the results.

Average number of questions answered correctly out of 32:

Atheist/agnostic: 20.9
Jewish: 20.5
Mormon: 20.3
White Evangelical Protestant: 17.6
White Catholic: 16.0
White mainline Protestant: 15.8
No particular belief: 15.2
Black Protestant: 13.4
Hispanic Catholic: 11.6

Basically, there is not much of a difference between them overall. That means 20.9 out of 32 (65%) and 11.6 out of 32 (36%) was the spread. Talk about trumpeting smarts when colleges (at least before the era of grade inflation) would have flunked every one of them. I’ll admit a D can be passing and an F is flunking no matter how you look at it. None of them are near an A for bragging rights. It is true that reports do mention the poor performance by all, but then go right ahead and treat the top scores as unexpected brilliance. They are mostly shocked by the top standing of Atheists who are only ahead of Jews by .4 percent. Mormons are ahead of the 4th highest group by a mere 3.3 percent when the spread starts to become relatively significant. The sample size, unless you are enamored by statistical numbers, isn't very great. It consisted of 3,412 respondents. With the number of people in the United States, I would think that at least 10,000 respondents would be needed for trustworthy analysis rather than a quick water cooler discussion.

What accounts for the low scores? My own experience is the secularization of culture and purging religious discourse in the public square (not just politics) except between contending extremist ideology. Positive interfaith dialogue tends to be universal brotherhood with no serious discussion of theological or historical differences. Then again, I don't think the scores would be much higher during any part of American history except for questions about individual's own religious community.

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