Mike the Mad Biologist

By now, you’ve probably heard about the Pew report on Americans and religious knowledge. A lot of atheists have been chortling about how well they done, compared to believers, and have offered explanations like Amanda’s:

This, of course, was absolutely no surprise to the loose online atheist community. I took abbreviated version of the test, and wasn’t particularly surprised that I got 15 out of 15 questions right. Many, maybe most, atheists that I know came to atheism because they learned so much about religion, enough that the logical inconsistencies and overt wish fulfillment aspects of it made it impossible to take it seriously.They’re often people who are inclined to pay close attention to the content of things instead of just the social context—the kind of people who, when sitting in church, actually think about the texts being presented and not so much about the role the church plays in their social life and self-identity. Thus, it’s easy to ask questions, and once that starts happening, atheism is right around the corner.

There is, however, another group that did as well as atheists (hint: the Mad Biologist also scored 15/15):


That’s because we’re fucking smart.

It’s pretty simple–we’re a minority, and as a minority, we have to know about the culture that surrounds us, whereas many people have no experience whatsoever with Judaism (or Jews–watching Seinfeld does not count*). When we also factor in the higher-than-average educational attainment, along with most Jews living in urban or urban-linked suburbs (and thus having exposure to other religions) it all falls into place.

I’m not trying to convert anyone here, but my problem with the atheist arguments against religion is that most atheists seem to understand religion through their own lens. That is, they decided to be atheists because religions are logical inconsistent. But, as I’ve argued before, religious beliefs and theology are only one part of religion, and, in practice, often a very small part. For many, their religion is identity. That’s the nut atheists have to crack.

Or maybe we Jews are just fucking smart.

*Jerry Seinfeld’s character was so goyish…. (I kid. Sort of.)


  1. #1 Dunc
    October 1, 2010

    For many, their religion is identity. That’s the nut atheists have to crack.

    I’m not sure we’d be that bothered about cracking it if people would keep it to that. Personally, I’m really not that bothered about what people believe in their secret hearts, or what they get up to in the privacy of their churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, or sacred groves (provided it’s legal and consensual). It’s only when they start trying to get their personal religious beliefs incorporated into law and science textbooks that I start getting upset. But then, that’s a distinction which Judaism seems to respect pretty well…

    It’s pretty simple–we’re a minority, and as a minority, we have to know about the culture that surrounds us

    Yeah, I figured that was the most likely explanation myself.

  2. #2 Omega Centauri
    October 1, 2010

    It’s pretty simple–we’re a minority, and as a minority, we have to know about the culture that surrounds us

    I’ll bet it is a bit more than that. Your religion probably places high value upon learning and education, whereas some religions come with the label “everything you need to know is in this book”.

  3. #3 Adriana
    October 1, 2010

    It could also be because Jews are the best atheists 🙂

    Most Jews (including my own family) I know are non-believers, they’re basically atheists but culturally and ethnically Jewish, celebrating the Jewish Holidays out of tradition, not belief in a supernatural entity.

  4. #4 Jim
    October 1, 2010

    @Adriana; there was a radio programme here in the UK where they interviewed atheists who had started as members of different religions. They had a “Jewish Atheist” go around asking the priests from different religions what they had to believe to be a member of their religion and attend their place of worship.

    The Rabbi’s answer was (from memory) “Interesting question, No one has ever asked me that before. … You don’t have to believe anything. You have to obey God’s laws”.

    — Jim

  5. #5 NewEnglandBob
    October 1, 2010

    I see the same as Adriana in my family and friends. There are a few that are orthodox (as I was brought up) but most have little to do with Judaism any longer except culturally.

  6. #6 Scott Wood
    October 1, 2010

    I think we understand that religion is a matter of identity very well – that’s a major component to many atheist’s objection to it: not only is it not true, but it forms an often divisive and socially-regressive identity.

    Dogma may, in practice, be a small part of religion, but that practice rarely survives without it.

  7. #7 Freetham Choade
    October 1, 2010

    That’s the nut atheists have to crack.

    Atheists don’t need to crack that. There is no strong benefit to proselytization in atheism. The God I do not believe in does not grant me bonus points towards the salvation I do not believe in of the eternal soul I do not believe in. So why should I care about converting others to atheism? I am concerned with enjoying the same freedom of expression as experienced by the various flavors of believers, and in not having theocracy forced upon me; i.e. my concern is personal liberty and separation of church and state.

  8. #8 razib
    October 1, 2010

    don’t f**k with the jews. someone should have told rick sanchez…. 🙂

  9. #9 John S. Wilkins
    October 1, 2010

    I think there’s a difference in the classes used here. Some of these classes are functionally equivalent (like atheists), while others are contingent historical groups (like Jews). Atheists are atheists for a single reason: they do not believe in gods. Jews are Jews (in terms of whatever properties Jews might have) for complex reasons: they are part of a complex cultural tradition, social organisation, and historical accidents. Some Jews may be of a tradition that is not so informed, but they didn’t make it to the USA, while those that did had a strong tradition of learning that transferred over to secular education really well.

    Comparisons of these two classes of classes is at best useless and at worst systematically misleading.

  10. #10 Marion Delgado
    October 2, 2010

    Not really true. You guys were down there near the Mormons, not up there with the atheists 🙂

  11. #11 Mike Haubrich
    October 2, 2010

    Wilkins, always on about bloody systematics. Do you ever give it a rest? (I kid, I kid!)

    I was greatly surprised to find that the sample questions were really rather simple, given how much certain people are on about atheists being proud of their “Know-Nothing Approach to Religion.” So, I was even more surprised at how poorly some of the religious groups did (Jews excepted.)

  12. #12 Ted
    October 2, 2010

    “how well they DONE”? You must be a southern jew.

  13. #13 vpillsws
    October 2, 2010

    how well they done..(Y)

  14. #14 Bella Oxmex
    October 3, 2010

    The Rabbi’s answer was (from memory) “Interesting question, No one has ever asked me that before. … You don’t have to believe anything. You have to obey God’s laws”.

    Shinto is much the same deal, which may explain why Japan is so secular.

  15. #15 abb3w
    October 4, 2010

    Note that many Jews only identify as such culturally, rather than theologically; and a quick check of GSS variables RELIG16 and RELIG indicates that perhaps 10% of those who start Jewish end up as NONEs – a bit higher than the Christians, if less than various Far Eastern creeds.

    Also, the Pew study reported the effects remained even when level of education was controlled for.

    But yes: the fundamental difficulty (so to speak) for atheists arguing against religion is the degree to which religion is intrinsic to the listeners’ identity. Short of a campaign to make Larry Niven’s “Grammar Lesson” mandatory reading at the elementary school level, I don’t see any particularly promising approaches to that.

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