The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey where they phoned more than 3,400 Americans and surveyed them on basic religious knowledge. The results, I gather, were a little surprising:
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, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. [...]
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.
Looking at the full survey, there are a few things worth noting. First, education goes a long way in explaining varying scores; college graduates were more likely to score well than people with only some college, who in turn, were more likely to score well than people with a high school education or less. And since the ranks of the nonbelievers are more likely to be filled with well-educated people, it makes sense that said nonbelievers would do well on a survey of religious knowledge.
Of course, if education were the sole factor, then well-educated evangelicals or Catholics would do as well as nonbelievers, but that isn't the case; even after controlling for education, nonbelievers score higher than their faithful counterparts, with the exception of Jews and Mormons. Still, it's worth noting that educated believers -- as well as believers with high levels of religious commitment -- scored well on questions relating to their own traditions. Their scores only dropped once they moved outside that zone.
All that said, let me speculate a bit. To me, it's no surprise that the highest scorers -- after controlling for everything -- were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks -- and especially those with middle-class lives -- tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn't succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don't need to know much about African Americans, and so they don't.
Likewise, religious minorities -- while not under much threat of persecution -- are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn't necessary when you're in the majority. Put another way, there's a strong chance that religious privilege explains the difference in knowledge between Christians and everyone else.
-- Jamelle Bouie