Religious illiteracy

Martin Cothran (cf.) demonstrates that he’s a religious illiterate, writing:

It’s Banned Books Week again: You know, the week where we talk about all of the books religious parents have objected to in schools, but where we ignore the fact that religious books were prevented from making it into schools in the first place?

In fact, I did a search in the “Books Banned and Challenged 2008-2009,” for the word “Bible,” but it didn’t turn up anything.

Funny how that works.

Funny indeed, as he wrote this the same day that Pew released a major survey on religious literacy (Pew’s site is hammered, so I’m linking a press report), which found that only 23% of Americans know that a teacher actually can read the Bible in a public school, provided he or she treats it as literature. You can’t lead a religious lesson in public schools, including using the Bible as a source of religious truth. Most Americans know the latter (89%!) but only a quarter know that the Bible can be introduced as literature. So Cothran is in good company. But he’s still wrong.

The Pew survey is getting a lot of play because it found that atheists and agnostics knew more about religion than religious people, with Jews and Mormons coming in a close second and third.

PZ and others are jumping on this to argue that this refutes claims that New/Extreme/Affirmative atheists know little about religion. This retort reminds me of a story from college.

At the University of Chicago, every student must pass a swimming test during incoming orientation, or they have to take a swimming class in order to graduate. The tale is told that one year, a new student arrived at the pool with her class, jumped in the pool, and instantly began flailing around. Lifeguards yanked her out, and after she caught her breath, asked the obvious question. “You obviously can’t swim, so why did you take the test? Why not just take the class?”

She answered, in typically U. of C. fashion: “I went to the library and I read every book on swimming, so I thought I knew how to swim!”

I think the well-informed atheists in Pew’s survey have the same sort of knowledge as our apocryphal student. They’ve read books and learned facts. They know what the hajj is, and can identify the leaders of different religious movements. They understand various rituals, and may even have seen a video of them, or perhaps attended such ceremonies with a friend.

And that’s knowledge. No doubt.

But they don’t know what it is to be religious. They have a grasp on religion on a fairly academic level, and can argue about it on that level. But most religious Americans don’t experience religion on that level.

This leads such atheists to argue past the beliefs, opinions, and concerns of actual religious people. For instance, you can find lots of efforts to mock Catholics for believing that communion wafers literally turn into the flesh of Jesus, and communion wine into his blood. This is taken as a sign of the sorts of foolish things religion forces people to believe. But only 45% of Catholics – presented with two options! – knew that Catholic dogma held to this literal transubstantiation, rather than a more symbolic reading. Catholics did as well at describing official Catholic theology as you’d expect from people guessing at random.

This means that an atheist criticizing Catholicism (and Catholics) for adhering to this belief is talking past at least half of Catholics (probably much more than half). And in doing so, they are missing the factors that actually bring Catholics to church, and misunderstand the appeal of communion to Catholics.

I don’t pretend to fully understand that appeal either. I don’t go to church, and I don’t take communion, and I don’t understand the appeal of either. Data like this, and the fact that religious Americans have so little of the sort of knowledge Pew was testing, tell us something about what religious Americans do value in their religious lives. It isn’t the details of theology, or even fairly big factoids about the Bible (e.g., given three choices, only 7 in 10 Americans correctly identified Moses as am important figure in the book of Exodus). The appeal of religion is not in the sorts of apologetics that so many atheists dearly love to skewer.

Religion appeals to people because it connects them to a community, because it connects them to their family (past and present), and because it fulfills a range of emotional and psychological needs. Atheists who want to wean people off of religion can do so only by understanding those appeals, and by finding ways to replace the benefits people get from religion. Attacking official doctrine and dogma may be appealing, but such arguments do as much to explain people’s experience of religion as books about swimming do to keep you from drowning.

Comments

  1. #1 John S. Wilkins
    September 28, 2010

    I immediately thought there’s a paper in the offing here: “What it is like to be a believer”. Community qualia, mystical modes and Jamesian phenomenology…

  2. #2 Heliconia
    September 28, 2010

    I totally agree that many atheists’ arguments against religion, such as transubstantiation being silly, don’t engage with people’s reasons for being religious. But I take issue with your suggestion that atheists “don’t know what it is to be religious”. Lots of them – I should say “us” – used to be religious themselves.

  3. #3 george.w
    September 28, 2010

    “And that’s knowledge. No doubt. But they don’t know what it is to be religious…”

    Do you really believe this or are you being deliberately obtuse? To expand on what Heliconia said (and filtering out some much stronger language); “Nonsense!”

    I know an awful lot of atheists who were once religious. Me, I was “saved” as a teen and earned a bible degree at a 4-year accredited college (dual major, with history, so it took me 6 years) in preparation for the ministry. That was > 30 years ago, and an agonizing road it was in places to get from there to saying today; no, I just don’t believe in god.

    But I do believe I know what it is to be religious, and I am not at all rare in this respect. And as to religious people who feel it is enough to feel religious but not to know anything about their own religion, but feel equally comfortable criticizing atheists for their assumed lack of knowledge, words seem inadequate. Though I can think of two. Or three.

    I skewer doctrine because it makes no sense to skewer community; those aspects of religious practice are very positive and good things. Maybe we could do them even better without all the hocus-pocus.

  4. #4 Etienne Mallette
    September 28, 2010

    To add to what Heliconia and george.w said, many ex-believers came to question their faith when they realized there were some things not quite… “logical”, for lack of a better word, they were expected to believe. I remember the Catholic dogma that even though the cracker doesn’t really turn into flesh, it really really turns into Jesus’ flesh was one of the first things I questioned and rejected. After a while, you move on to subtler silliness, keep rejecting more and more of what you were taught, and that paves the road to the realization you do not believe in god anymore.

  5. #5 Deepak Shetty
    September 28, 2010

    Mike McCrae
    If you read this , note that I think that the Pew survey means nothing :). You on the other hand should be arguing with Josh that this carefully controlled survey means something.

  6. #6 Fred Nurke
    September 28, 2010

    The seeds of my atheism were sown while I was a student at the Prairie Bible Institute. Like many of the commentators above, I know what it is to be religious. I remember the comfort and yes, the joy, of embracing a Christ-centred life. (Yes, I used that phrase a lot). I also remember the cognitive dissonance and believing in spite of what I was discovering. I remember the social network of the Church, the brotherhood, the fellowship. But logic and my rational self won out, and I am much happier and more comfortable with my current state of non belief. I don’t know what’s next, but I look forward to finding out. If it’s oblivion, I won’t know will I? So I can enjoy looking forward to whatever reality turns out to be.
    I know the Bible, I know fundamentalism, I know liberalism, I know Christians. Oh yes, I know what it is to be religious.

  7. #7 Deepak Shetty
    September 28, 2010

    “Religion appeals to people because it connects them to a community, because it connects them to their family (past and present), and because it fulfills a range of emotional and psychological needs. ”

    you leave out that thats what they have been taught to believe when young. You leave out connect to their family is sometimes a euphemism for emotional blackmail.

  8. #8 Josh Rosenau
    September 28, 2010

    Heliconia, george.w: Yes, some atheists do understand religious experience. Some used to and have lost it. Others thought they had it because they were raised religious, but left religion because they didn’t develop those connections. I could have written more carefully, as I was only referring to a subset of atheists, but I don’t think this changes my broad point. Some atheists engage religion in exactly the way I’m describing, building a nonreligious alternative to religious community/tradition. I wasn’t trying to paint all atheists with one brush, nor even all New/Affirmative/Extreme/gnu atheists. I was explaining what I take it to mean when people say that certain atheists don’t understand religion.

    George.w: I agree that skewering community is pointless. I wonder where you fall in the “Don’t be dickish” debate, as the position you espouse seems well-aligned with DB(A)D.

    I’m also curious about the notion that religious people ought to know the details of their religion that Pew is asking about. I mean, part of Catholicism’s point is that lay members aren’t supposed to get involved in the details of scriptural interpretation, while Protestantism tends to be averse to individuals accepting external claims about theology (sola scriptura!). Judaism and Islam are orthoprax, so beliefs are less important than practices, which the Pew survey only touches on glancingly.

    As an analogy, I would say that it’s good for musicians to be able to read sheet music and to have some formal training in music theory, world music, etc. But some of the greatest musicians were illiterate, self-taught, and forced to invent their own notions of music theory. Maybe religion’s like jazz: if you have to ask what it is, to have it defined and broken down and theorized, you’ll never know it.

  9. #9 Art
    September 29, 2010

    Funny how the Catholic beliefs about transubstantiation has been a source of violence. People were tortured and killed a few hundred years ago for not knowing the details of transubstantiation. But now, because atheists are shown to know more about it than many Catholics, it isn’t a big deal.

    Catholics had no understanding of Jewish or Muslim experience but they intellectually understood the bankruptcy of the Jews and Muslims and slaughtered them. But now that Christian knowledge of their own religion is shown to be wanting it is the Christians who claim it is the experiential aspect, not intellectualism, that is supposed to hold sway.

    There is nothing unique about the religious experience. Meditation, yoga, and many other methods, can be used to trigger the religious mindset. And do it without any religion. Better because they are not burdened with the baggage of history, bias, the burden of form, hierarchy, bureaucracy, and the urge to violence.

    Every human can meditate and experience all the good of the religious mindset. Atheists just do it without the slag of religion. It is the religious who have been deceived into thinking that they have to go to church, perform set prayers, or work through a priest to have the experience.

    You think you are talking to people who only have an intellectual understanding of an experience. When, in fact, you are telling a fish that they aren’t swimming correctly because they don’t do it like you do.

    I went to church. I had religious experiences. And I was told how to name and label them to fit with the religious structure defined by and beneficial to the church. Now, as an atheist, I know I can have the same experience without resort to any religion. Without having to label and reference the feelings back to myth or dogma.

    Religion showed me how to dog paddle. They taught that I had to follow ritual and ceremony before swimming or I wouldn’t be swimming correctly. I had to debriefed by a priest after dog paddling or I wouldn’t be right with the water.

    I can still dog paddle. But I’ve added the Australian crawl, sidestroke, breast stroke to my skill set. I chose how I swim and when and where I will swim. Without ceremony. Without being debriefed by a priest.

    But your welcome to conclude that, because I’m not dog paddling slowly around the shallow end like the religious authorities say I should, I’m not swimming.

  10. #10 Soren
    September 29, 2010

    I am a little confused

    gnu atheists are often accused of being ignorant of the finer theological points. Lets take Dakwins as an example.

    He wrote a book aimed at the common persons idea of religion, Like he said in the beginning of the book, and was accused of not taking the finer theological points into consideration.

    Now if he had taken on the finest apologists, then his book would fail 90% of believers or more, because, as you say yourself – they do not know of theology, and certainly wouldn’t agree with the clever apologists that shroud their god in so much wishy washy nothing.

    quite simply the god of the man on the street is not the same as the god of clergy and apologetics, as this survey so clearly shows.

    So while it is all quite good to discuss Plantingas finer points – he is clever after all, just not convincing – energy should also be spend discussing the man in the sky god. Both approaches should be employed, and it is silly to accuse eg Dawkins of being crude when he in fact addresses the belief of most believers.

    There is criticism of modern apologetics an theology aplenty, but like modern theology it doesn’t escape from the ivory towers.

    And though I have used Dawkins as an example, I am not in any way an apostle or defender of the man. I agree with many criticisms of the god delusion, but no one can deny the effect the book had, if nothing else, the substantially shifting the overton window on discourse on religion. We can’t let perfection be the enemy of the good after all.

  11. #11 RBH
    September 29, 2010

    First I read

    I think the well-informed atheists in Pew’s survey have the same sort of knowledge as our apocryphal student. They’ve read books and learned facts. They know what the hajj is, and can identify the leaders of different religious movements. They understand various rituals, and may even have seen a video of them, or perhaps attended such ceremonies with a friend.

    And then this:

    I was explaining what I take it to mean when people say that certain atheists don’t understand religion.

    Josh, I think you’ve got both feet in it here, and ought to stop wriggling around. Your first quotation is such an over-generalization that it’s nearly content-free. Many many atheists (including me) come out of a conservative religious upbringing, and some I know (from my IIDB Administrator days) were not casual Sunday-morning-only Christians but were born-agains washed in the blood of Jesus. Sure, some atheists don’t know the subjective experience of that latter level of religious feeling, but in the same way I don’t know the subjective feeling of being female in a male-dominated world or gay in a straight-dominated world.

    But knowing a fair amount about the history and breadth of those experiences from ‘academic’ reading and talking with female and gay friends can provide knowledge. The Christians who on average got just 1/3 of the questions correct in the Pew survey don’t even go to that level of effort to understand the range of religious views out there. I know from direct experience here in Ohio that there is a parochial, insular, defensive rejection not of other views, but of learning about other views. A while back I offered to loan Collins’ “Language of God” to an evangelical acquaintance here. He asked “Does he accept Genesis?” I answered, “He’s an evangelical who accepts an old earth.” The acquaintance responded, “Then I don’t need to read it–I don’t read things I don’t agree with.” That’s the kind of attitude the Pew survey indirectly measures. ‘Not only do I not know about those things, I don’t want to know about them!’

  12. #12 groki
    September 29, 2010

    some of the greatest musicians were illiterate, self-taught, and forced to invent their own notions of music theory. Maybe religion’s like jazz

    I see where you’re aiming, but I think your scope’s backwards: there are very, very few of those “greatest musicians” among us.

    most people with those handicaps don’t make jazz; they make simple-minded repetitive worthless noise.

    with most people, maybe religion’s like that.

  13. #13 msironen
    September 29, 2010

    Am I the only one who’s having trouble parsing the first paragraph?

    Is Martin Cochran religiously illiterate because he fails to realize that 77% of Americans fail to realize that the Bible is in fact NOT a “banned book” in public schools? In other words, is it religiously illerate to criticize the religious on points where the religious are ignorant of their own theology or simply generally ignorant of facts as in the case of the Bible not actually being banned from the schools?

    The former I can somewhat understand, but the latter is absurd (but seems to be the case with the charge against Martin Cochran?).

  14. #14 Russell
    September 29, 2010

    Children learn to practice religion the same way and about the same time they learn to speak their mother tongue. Long before they think to question any bit of theology, their brothers and sisters have been baptized in it, they have participated in its rituals every Sunday, their priest or preacher has attended family gatherings, their aunts and uncles have been married by its rites, and their religion has officiated at their grandparents’ funerals. It’s one thing to stop believing in Santa Claus. It’s quite a bit more to stop celebrating Christmas. And they are surrounded by a lot of Very Serious Adults telling them they can’t truly celebrate Christmas without believing a lot of nonsense.

  15. #15 Stephen
    September 29, 2010

    “because it fulfills a range of emotional and psychological needs”

    Some of those needs will be for validation of their interpretation of reality, the need to feel superior to non-believers, the need to be “special” in some way or to have special “knowledge” of some sort, and the need to dominate others who disagree with them, to force them to submit. These are not admirable, or morally worthy goals in any conceivable way.

    Now, you may say, “Sure, but there are really very, very few of those types of people.” Maybe. Maybe not. Especially in America, perhaps …

  16. #16 TB
    September 29, 2010

    From wikipedia: In Roman Catholic theology, “transubstantiation” (in Latin, transsubstantiatio, in Greek μετουσίωσις (metousiosis) means the change of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of the Body and Blood (respectively)[1] of Christ in the Eucharist, while all that is accessible to the senses (accidents) remains as before

    So if you’re faced with only two choices – literally or symbolically, which more accurately describes transubstantiation? I suspect if you’re closer to being a fundamentalist you’ll pick literal. If you’re not, you’ll pick symbolic. And I suspect that quite a few on either side would have liked a third choice. That atheists and agnostics largely chose the fundamentalist option only bolsters the case that their understanding of religion doesn’t reflect what the majority of people feel their religion is.
    As far as people who were raised religious – especially in a fundamentalist environment, I certainly respect your decision. But your experience is not the same as other people’s experiences, where they are able to reject or interpret aspects of doctrine that they don’t agree with without rejecting their entire faith.

  17. #17 Marion Delgado
    September 29, 2010

    It was a phone survey, apparently, and I think a little confusing – in any event, it’s high school bookish knowledge. Outside the confounder of education for different groups, there are factors like Maimonides being from a much earlier era, and arguably far less influential than, e.g., Luther, giving away one free question, so to speak, to the Jewish responders. Also, there were not, by my count even close to 32 questions just about religion.

  18. #18 J.J.E.
    September 29, 2010

    I’d like to second Heliconia’s comment and take it up a notch by pivoting off of Josh’s reply.

    Heliconia, george.w: Yes, some atheists do understand religious experience. Some used to and have lost it. Others thought they had it because they were raised religious, but left religion because they didn’t develop those connections. I could have written more carefully, as I was only referring to a subset of atheists, but I don’t think this changes my broad point.

    This not only seems to cater to some pre-existing premises, it is also factually wrong. It isn’t that just SOME atheists/agnostics come from a religious background. A strong majority of them come from a believing background. Only by special pleading can Josh grant “low intensity” believers the “religious” mantle and refuse to grant it to formerly “low intensity”/currently deconverted believers. And such special pleading is very tendentious.

    And then Josh goes on about he was only responding to a “subset of atheists”, “not all atheists”, just “certain atheists”. Which subset? These are just weasel-words with no discernible target of any a priori importance. They don’t address a well-defined a priori demographic (certainly not a demographic that isn’t question-begging), not a particular author or media figure, nor a particular advocacy group or political organization. To be honest, it isn’t clear what Josh’s “broad point” was if this amorphous question begging group doesn’t exist independently of this argument. Even small minorities in a nation as populous the U.S. (let alone adding Europe) represents an enormous swath of diversity. It is trivial to so pick out any arbitrary subset of a population possessing broad characteristics of one’s rhetorical opponent and show them to be wrong/inconsistent/hypocritical/etc. if one merely says “Not all X, but CERTAIN X fall prey to the problems I cite here.”

    Josh’s broader point would appear to be that “intellectual knowledge is different than experiential knowledge” and thus the Gnu Atheists have nothing to celebrate about because they’re missing the point. This is wrong for two reasons:

    1) the Gnu Atheists were specifically referencing that study as a rebuttal of the oft-cited lack of intellectual knowledge (because the Courtier’s Reply is trotted out so often, even within the skeptical community);
    2) the Gnu Atheists are full of people with experiential knowledge of religion from their own childhoods.

    I’m not sure what broader point remains once these two issues are acknowledged, as surely they must be. The argument can only be salvaged by special pleading, as I indicate above. And I ain’t buying it.

  19. #19 Daniel Murphy
    September 29, 2010

    Several commenters have noted that their atheism grew in a religious environment. In the Pew Forum’s 2009 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, 92% of respondents said they had been affiliated with a religion as a child. Yet only 83.1% described themselves as currently affiliated, and 16% described themselves as currently unaffiliated. And of that 16%, 79% said they had previously been affiliated with a religion — 44% formerly Protestant, 27% formerly Catholic, and 8% formerly of some other religion.

    Now, how many of the 16% who described themselves as unaffiliated are atheists is a good question. In the survey, only 2% of the unaffiliated said they were atheist, 2% said they were agnostic, 6% were categorized as “secular unaffiliated” and 6% as “religious unaffiliated.” The “religious unaffiliated” are respondents who said they were not affiliated with a religion but also said religion was “somewhat important” or “very important” in their lives.

    So perhaps half of the Pew Forum’s unaffiliated 16% don’t believe in God. That would agree with a 2008 Gallup Poll, in which 8% said they had no belief in God, while the rest said they believed in God or believed in “some other higher power.”

    The Pew survey does not specify the childhood religion of the 2% of respondents who described themselves as atheists. But whatever the actual number of nonbelievers of what the Pew Forum calls the “unaffiliated,” the numbers do suggest that a substantial majority of atheists were raised in religiously affiliated homes. That rather undercuts your argument that atheists don’t know what it is to be religious. Besides which, who would argue that being raised religious is the only way atheists might come to understand the religious experience of others, including neighbors and family relations?

  20. #20 Josh Rosenau
    September 29, 2010

    The more I think about it, the less relevant the question of growing up in a religious household seems to be. One can grow up in a house full of scientists, and be indifferent to science, one can grow up in a family of dancers and never learn to dance. One can grow up in a religious household and for cultural and familial reasons choose to identify with that religion, without necessarily acquiring the sort of deep knowledge of the experience of having religion that I was trying to get at.

    But some people certainly do have that experience. So it’s not a cop out to say that some atheists have that insight and some don’t. It’s a fairly obvious statement of fact. The subset who don’t have that experience are not being carved out in an ad hoc manner here, I think there’s a lot of overlap between that population and the gnu/new/affirmative/extreme atheists (though some of the gnu/new/affirmative/extreme atheists were once religious in exactly this sense and their extremity, etc. is the zeal of the converted. I’d never say that gnu/extreme/new/affirmative atheists are monolithic).

    I know RBH well enough to think that he does have a good sense of how religious people see religion. I know enough about Dawkins to suspect that he doesn’t. If I were a sociologist, I could probably concoct reasonable criteria for identifying these different populations, but I’m not, so I won’t pretend to be one.

    The broad point I was after, JJE, was that critics of religion tend to focus too much on the finer points of theology (e.g., Dawkins has a whole chapter of TGD dedicated to critiquing formal proofs for God’s existence, a belief that I suspect most theists take as axiomatic and not in need of proof). They fail to engage the genuine benefits that religious people get from their religious lives, and to act as if religions were uniformly harmful for adherent (see comments above for examples of this).

    The path to weaning folks off of religions, or to finding a way to co-exist peacefully with religions, has to start with understanding what religions actually mean to their adherents. It has to reflect the genuine differences among religions, and not treat “religion” as a monolithic entity. Doing otherwise will generate a lot of heat, but will not connect (or only connect accidentally) with the concerns and attitudes of religious people.

    I think PZ and others are right that atheists and agnostics did well on this quiz because atheists and agnostics study religion to a) argue against it and b) to understand what religion is all about. But clearly this knowledge is not especially relevant to point b, and I would argue that it is therefore not useful for point a.

    I might be wrong, but I don’t really see anyone addressing that point.

    RBH: “I know from direct experience here in Ohio that there is a parochial, insular, defensive rejection not of other views, but of learning about other views. A while back I offered to loan Collins’ “Language of God” to an evangelical acquaintance here. He asked “Does he accept Genesis?” I answered, “He’s an evangelical who accepts an old earth.” The acquaintance responded, “Then I don’t need to read it–I don’t read things I don’t agree with.” That’s the kind of attitude the Pew survey indirectly measures. ‘Not only do I not know about those things, I don’t want to know about them!’”

    This is all true, but somewhat off point. It would be one thing if people were all well-versed in their own religions, but Catholics don’t know about Catholic dogma, nor can they reliably identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Evangelicals do better. Less than half of white evangelicals, however, know that the Golden Rule is not among the Ten Commandments. Fewer than 1 in 5 Protestants know that they’re supposed to believe in salvation through faith alone! Atheists are 50% more likely to know Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation than Protestants! And practically no one knows who Jonathan Edwards was (given three choices, only ~10% identified Edwards as a leader of the Great Awakening). This is not lack of knowledge of other people’s religions, it’s lack of knowledge of their own religion.

    If someone asked me whether Collins accepts Genesis, I wouldn’t talk about the age of the earth, I’d say that he’s an evangelical Christian who was born again, has taken Jesus as his lord and savior, and that, yes, I think he takes the Bible seriously. This person sounds like he/she wants to use age of the earth as a metric for religious seriousness, and I would try to get around that misperception by trying to get at what he things it means to “accept Genesis.”

    msironen: The question was asked as part of the “role of religion in public life” section of the survey, and is a fair measure in that regard. Cothran’s repetition of a widely believed falsehood about religion qualifies him as at least partly religiously illiterate.

  21. #21 george.w
    September 29, 2010

    George.w: I agree that skewering community is pointless. I wonder where you fall in the “Don’t be dickish” debate, as the position you espouse seems well-aligned with DB(A)D.

    I’m usually fairly non-dickish online, if by that you mean I don’t use much profanity or destroy religious symbols. I just prefer to concentrate on stuff that matters, like destroying religious ideas. If humanity is going to be blamed for evil then we ought to be able to take credit for good.

    But the overtly dickish don’t bother me at all anymore. Sufficient contact with religious dicks innoculated me from that concern.

  22. #22 TB
    September 29, 2010

    “1) the Gnu Atheists were specifically referencing that study as a rebuttal of the oft-cited lack of intellectual knowledge (because the Courtier’s Reply is trotted out so often, even within the skeptical community);”

    Well, when talking with religious scholars (or even secular philosophers) many have made mistakes rooted in ignorance. You want examples, take a look at Thoughts in a Haystack blog. And the Courtier’s Reply is only relevant if someone simply says they don’t believe in God and don’t discuss religious details. The minute you start talking about religious details, CR no longer applies. You get the details wrong, you can’t hide behind “it doesn’t matter.”

    “2) the Gnu Atheists are full of people with experiential knowledge of religion from their own childhoods.”

    And their childhood experiences are not representative of everyone else’s childhood experiences.How many people had similar experiences but kept their faith but changed their brand of religion? We know studies have shown that nearly half change their beliefs and many are becoming unaffiliated – but faith is still important to them, religious institutions not so much.

    So anyone can say they have experience, but that experience is only relevant to another person’s experience if an effort is made to understand that other person’s experience.

    Look, if anything the study shows a few things:
    1) that Americans don’t spend a lot of time studying the minutia of religious dogma anymore than they study science, and
    2) Religious institutions don’t necessarily represent the people who identify with those institutions.

    But we knew these things. A quick google search on Catholics and birth control resulted in this:

    “Wall Street Journal-Harris pollsters (in 2006) found in June that 88 percent of Catholics supported more access to birth control information, 81 percent endorsed contraception to prevent abortions, 71 percent said contraception access should not be limited by ability to pay, and 53 percent supported easy emergency contraception availability in all pharmacies.”

    Do a google search on “percent of catholics supporting gay rights” and you’ll see similar results suggesting that Catholics are not toeing the Vatican line.

    Exclusivist atheists can crow all they want (and they will) but if they insist on arguing how wrong genesis is to a religious person who doesn’t find genesis or a literal interpretation of the bible relevant to their life, then they’re not going to consider those arguments relevant either.

  23. #23 TB
    September 29, 2010

    And by the way, since when is “experiential knowledge of religion” accepted as evidence of anything?

  24. #24 J.J.E.
    September 29, 2010

    TB:

    The minute you start talking about religious details, CR no longer applies. You get the details wrong, you can’t hide behind “it doesn’t matter.”

    You are conflating the Courtier’s Reply strategy with the actual reply of the courtier. But it isn’t your fault, I was unclear. I take responsibility for the lack of clarity. My point was, atheist critics of religion get accused all the time of being know-nothings by “courtiers” (i.e. apologists). As it happens, this accusation has even less weight in light of the new data.

    And by the way, since when is “experiential knowledge of religion” accepted as evidence of anything?

    That’s an excellent question you might pose to Josh:

    But they don’t know what it is to be religious. They have a grasp on religion on a fairly academic level, and can argue about it on that level. But most religious Americans don’t experience religion on that level.

    I was only falsifying the proposition. But you have an even better tack, namely questioning the premise of the value of experience. Maybe Josh will defend his concept of “experiencing knowledge” to you.

  25. #25 Etienne Mallette
    September 29, 2010

    Am I grossly misunderstanding what is being debated in most of these comments? Some people argue this study helps disprove a common critic levied at atheists, other people argue that such arguments does not touch many religious people… And hey, both are right. So why are we arguing again?

    I think everybody here knows you do not engage everybody in the same way over a common problem. Everybody here knows there are religious people who would be fairly shaken should the basic tenets of dogma be questioned before them and that there are other religious people who would shrug and say “meh”.

  26. #26 TB
    September 30, 2010

    JJE: ” As it happens, this accusation has even less weight in light of the new data”
    Only if you ignore the fact that the “apologists” keep saying you need to engage with the leading theologians and not the general public. You know, that argument that if you define religion by what is popularly understood of that religion then it’s only fair to define science that way too.
    You’d have a point if no one had ever agreed that the general public doesn’t study religions as much as they should, but that’s not the case.

    “Maybe Josh will defend his concept of “experiencing knowledge” to you.”

    Nope, you used it as one of your points, it’s up to you to defend it as you used it. To my knowledge, Josh hasn’t had a problem with that. But, it’s nice to know that you consider personal experience or anecdote as evidence now. I’ll remember that. :)

    And Etienne, you are correct.

  27. #27 J.J.E.
    September 30, 2010

    Only if you ignore the fact that the “apologists” keep saying you need to engage with the leading theologians and not the general public.

    Nah, I think you’ve confused yourself here. You’re now making prescriptions. Atheists are often told that they need to engage “sophisticated” theologians, not because the apologist or accommodationist is actually interested in theology, but because they are calling the qualifications of the atheist into question. They are saying “Atheists are too ignorant of theology to call a general concept of god into question”. Maybe so, maybe not. That’s not the point. Atheists usually aren’t trying to call a general concept of god into question, they are trying to call the Christian god of the western world into question, the Muslim world’s Allah into question, the Mormons’ Baloney er Moroni into question. Theologians can, and often do, call the “unsophisticated” theolgies of regular people into question. Great, then they can serve as allies. Until people get that their religious beliefs are unsupportable with evidence and are often contradictory, there is no need to upgrade to sophisticated theology.

    For example, a well-educated 6th grader is fully equipped to find errors in 2nd grader arithmatic. It is true that graduate topology is beyond the 6th sgrader’s experience. But the existence of the field of topology doesn’t make the 2nd grader any more right. So, no, the exhortation to engage “sophisticated theology” is unnecessary to show that the majority theology is bunk. It is enough to be more informed than the target audience. When the target audience moves on, then that position can be reconsidered. I predict that when religious people internalize the problems with their belief, they tend to become atheistic more often than they become deistic. This was certainly true for me and many others I know. And if this is a general phenomenon, “sophisticated” theology doesn’t even need to be addressed, as the target audience doesn’t cling to theology anymore. Of course, if the target audience DID move to sophisticated theology en masse, that would be a different issue altogether.

    Nope, you used it as one of your points, it’s up to you to defend it as you used it.

    That’d probably funny at a bar over beers when exchanges could be done in seconds rather than hours, and I take in the spirit given. But come on, in an unresponsive forum like a comments section, try not to derail like that! :) Seriously, I was rebutting Josh’s assertion, not the reverse. And no, I think “experential knowledge” is both: 1) equally shared between theists and non-theists; and 2) worth very little.

    Those points aren’t mutually exclusive and both call into question Josh’s contention. If you WEREN’T being cute, I want to ensure you weren’t twisting the plain intended meaning of my words.

  28. #28 Conan the Pseudonymous
    September 30, 2010

    Where I come from, in the UK, I would expect fewer atheists to know these answers. The pressure to be religious is much lower, religion isn’t common in daily life (at all), and many atheists had non-religious parents. I was raised nominally Catholic, and even went to church every Sunday (I got full marks on the online Pew test, too), but I’m an exception.

    Anyway, do atheists know about religion? It depends on the individual, but most atheists have some kind of knowledge of it. But it seems to be that Josh won’t accept that forthright, outspoken atheists could possibly understand religion. Even if they understand it intellectually, they don’t get it experientially, whatever that means.

    As for me, I’m an atheist, I’m pretty outspoken, and I know a lot about religion. I’m also a social anthropologist, and reading about religion, ritual, and experience is… totally normal for me. I grapple with questions like this fairly often, although I mostly work on kinship. I know what it means to be religious better than most religious people – really. Not a ridiculous boast, just a trivial fact. And this is what I would say about this issue:

    Atheists are on a continuum in terms of religious belief, stretching from strict fundamentalist views and daily church attendance through more moderate religious belief, postmodern religious views (syncretism &c), and agnosticism to low-level atheism and outspoken founded-my-own-secular-humanist-society atheism, with corresponding differences in understanding of specific parts of doctrine and religious experience, something which also varies depending on geographic location, upbringing, and personality, and is thus more of an individual variable, albeit with a fair amount of regularity across the self-identifying population, due simply to a correlation between certain types of experience and self-identification.

    That’s the truth of it. Where people fall on their ability to understand religion – whether “experientially” or intellectually – is dependent on a huge range of factors. As it happens, a lot of atheists are a) generally better educated than a lot of religious people, b) are often confronted with religious belief and have thus deliberately learnt about it or absorbed knowledge indirectly, and c) atheists have often done a lot of questing around, looking for what could possibly be true and what could not. Most atheists I know didn’t reject religion outright from the beginning, but looked at, say, Buddhism, or Daoism, or even some kind of postmodern thingamajig with Thor and multiple female deities and breasts and who knows what first. In any case, asking questions, which is what atheists have typically done, inevitably leads to knowing more answers. Does this correlate strongly with understanding religious belief in the same way as Martin Luther or Jim McChristianstereotype? Maybe, maybe not. But again, it’s down to individual variation. I certainly don’t understand evangelical religious belief in the same way as an ex-evangelical Christian, just like a current evangelical Christian probably doesn’t understand middle-of-the-road Anglo-Catholicism in southern England like I do. But you never know.

    What motivates my mother – she would self-identify as a Catholic although she believes in a tiny, insignificant fraction of the dogma (mostly, “be nice to people, like Jesus”) – to go to church is not in any way like what motivates/d Shelley Shannon or Martin Luther King. Different strokes for different folks.

    Saying that “atheists don’t understand religion” is just stereotyping.

    Cut it out.

  29. #29 TB
    September 30, 2010

    JJE: “Nah, I think you’ve confused yourself here. You’re now making prescriptions. Atheists are often told that they need to engage “sophisticated” theologians, not because the apologist or accommodationist is actually interested in theology, but because they are calling the qualifications of the atheist into question. ”

    No, it’s because some exclusivist atheists (not all, Conan is quite correct to say it’s not fair to lump everyone together) insist on holding moderate or liberal believers to account for fundamentalist beliefs. That’s the error. If anything, this study shows that one argument does not fit all and most people don’t sweat the small details because they’re not relevant. To extend Josh’s analogy, that would be like training for the swim test by wading in shallow water.

    “I think “experential knowledge” is both: 1) equally shared between theists and non-theists; and 2) worth very little. Those points aren’t mutually exclusive and both call into question Josh’s contention. ”
    Now you’re backpedalling, but it’s too late – other commentors on this thread have revealed how important their personal experience is to who they are now. Experience is the key here – but not everyone has the same experience. That doesn’t invalidate anyone’s personal history, it simply shows that when you discuss someone else’s beliefs without getting to know their experience, you are flailing around in the water.

  30. #30 Daniel Murphy
    September 30, 2010

    One can grow up in a religious household and for cultural and familial reasons choose to identify with that religion, without necessarily acquiring the sort of deep knowledge of the experience of having religion that I was trying to get at

    A substantial number of those who call themselves religious have neither a deep knowledge of their religion, nor is it a very important part of their lives. So why do atheists need to acquire a “deep knowledge” of religion to understand how a goodly number of the religious experience it?

    Let me put it another way. Let’s take the Christian myth. How much studying do I need to do to understand how profoundly it should affect my life if there were a God who is (somehow) responsible for all, knows all, sees all and (somehow) loves all and who sent a Son of God to Earth to spread the good news? That I was “born in sin” and need “saving” to avoid eternal damnation and enjoy eternal life? Not very much, really — aren’t the implications immediately clear? But neither does it take much thought to see that many of the religious can’t possibly be experiencing such a belief any more “deeply” than something along the lines of either “there’s a God who good who cares if I’m good and I try to be good, and not just on Sundays” or, less tolerantly, “God says X, X is true, and anyone who doesn’t believe X is on my shit list.”

    Dawkins has a whole chapter of TGD dedicated to critiquing formal proofs for God’s existence, a belief that I suspect most theists take as axiomatic and not in need of proof).

    Fair enough, and a common theme in reviews of books on evolution written for an American audience is how regrettable it is that so much space is given over to arguing with fundamentalist positions. The authors themselves express regret: I think Dawkins has said as much, and Donald Prothero apologizes for how much of his excellent book on fossil evidence is given over to destroying creationist arguments. But unfortunately, it’s those fundamentalist positions (albeit disguised as “intelligent design theory” or “teach the controversy) combined with scientific ignorance that drive the arguments that keep popping up in Kansas and Delaware and Texas and you name it over evolution in school districts, in boards of education, and in presidential elections — recall the farce of how few hands went up among the dozen Republican presidential candidates who were asked if they believed in evolution.

    They [Dawkins, et al.] fail to engage the genuine benefits that religious people get from their religious lives, and to act as if religions were uniformly harmful for adherent (see comments above for examples of this).

    That seems very unfair. First because I don’t believe that “they” have failed to address the fact that religion provides (for the religious) a source for morality, a sense of community, a feeling of comfort, and (often) a tangible communal effort for good. There’s just not a need to go on and on about that, once you’ve demonstrated (as “they” have) that in those things religion provides nothing that cannot be attained otherwise. Second, because I can’t think of any atheist who acts (or speaks or writes) as if religions were uniformly harmful.

    Further, Dawkins and others do not only address dogmatic religion which, I agree, are not very important to many religious people. They also address what might be called errors in thinking that need essentially to be corrected if the goal is “weaning folks off religion.” I’m thinking of Dawkins’s recent denunciation in London on the occasion of the visit of the head of the Catholic church of the doctrine of original sin; his frequent reminders that no child is born a Christian, Muslim or Jew; and his unwavering belief that reason and evidence rightly trump faith, tradition and ignorance in every other field — why not religion, too?

    I think PZ and others are right that atheists and agnostics did well on this quiz because atheists and agnostics study religion to a) argue against it and b) to understand what religion is all about.

    You write as if “atheist and agnostics” — er, “uniformly” take up religion as an academic exercise. But many atheists grew up religious, formerly identified themselves as religious and surely many of them (at least as much as the still-religious, no?) experienced their former religion “deeply.” And surely many atheists (whether they were formerly religious or not. Why not acknowledge that?

    I agree that growing up religious doesn’t “necessarily” mean one has acquired “deep knowledge” of the religious experience, but I do not think you have adequately acknowledged that (1) it must be true that many atheists — most of whom are formerly religious — must have thereby acquired a sufficiently “deep” understanding of religion and (2) both for those who come from a religious background and for those not so privileged, the knowledge needed to be acquired to “understand” religion experience isn’t particularly “deep.”

  31. #31 J.J.E.
    September 30, 2010

    Now you’re backpedalling, but it’s too late – other commentors on this thread have revealed how important their personal experience is to who they are now.

    Eh? Asserting that I’m backpedaling and that it is “too late” doesn’t make it so. Your argument isn’t at all clear. Of course personal experience is personally important! I said as much myself. But revelations from god are also personally important to those that have them, but that doesn’t make revelation worth anything. And you already said as much! You seem to be either refusing to acknowledge an important distinction when I make it but making the same distinction yourself or are simply being sophistic. It is really counter productive to keep talking to you if you insist on trying to impute meaning to my comments that I disavow having ever intended. An accusation of backpedaling when I explicitly reject it and explain what I originally intended is simply a lack of charity. Especially when you make the same distinctions. I do ask for a bit more charity on this point. I’ve already tried to extend an olive branch by copping to a lack of clarity. Don’t you think you could at least reciprocate?

    So yes, in this morass of conversation, religious experience can both be “valuable” (personally) and “worthless” (for establishing truth). Your point as I took it was as an empirical truth issue. Otherwise, why would you ask this:

    And by the way, since when is “experiential knowledge of religion” accepted as evidence of anything?

    Thus, I took you to be saying that when discussing the god question, personal religious experience isn’t valuable. And now you come back and assert that:

    Experience is the key here – but not everyone has the same experience. That doesn’t invalidate anyone’s personal history, it simply shows that when you discuss someone else’s beliefs without getting to know their experience, you are flailing around in the water.

    Juxtaposing these two statements is confusing in the context of you accusing me backpedaling.

    To come back full circle, of course there are certain obstacles to religious people accepting arguments counter to their own intuition and cognitive biases. That can be true for all people holding any opinion. This is a trivial result long shown by psychology. But critics of religion aren’t necessarily psychologists trying to determine under what conditions a cognitive bias can be overcome or not. So, the “personal experience” angle need not necessarily concern us here. What is always relevant is if the arguments that religious critics make are really logically applicable to the faith that people actually have. And are the arguments sufficiently factually grounded to be relevant to what people actually believe? And we can determine that, yes, atheists and agnostics do in fact have an intellectual understanding of the basic premises of what claims faiths make to their congregations at least as strong as the understanding of the faiths’ adherents. So, it isn’t crazy to assert that religious critics aren’t simply making poor arguments simply because they’re ignorant.

    And even if experience were important (as you also seem to indicate), insofar as people can share experience on anything, deconverts who are currently atheists share quite a bit with religious people.

    In summary, on average, religious critics are knowledgeable enough to engage believers on the tenets of their faith. Critics aren’t “know-nothings”. Moreover, if anyone argues that experience needs to be brought into the equation (confusingly, you seem to be arguing it both ways), then many current atheists don’t lack for that either.

    The only remaining option you indicate seems to be “when you discuss someone else’s beliefs without getting to know their experience, you are flailing around in the water”. I argued that deconvert atheists already have this. If you argue that they don’t by dint of them being atheists, then you basically define away any type of engagement. That’s the definition of question begging.

  32. #32 TB
    September 30, 2010

    JJE: “Eh? Asserting that I’m backpedaling and that it is “too late” doesn’t make it so.”

    I could say the same about this statement:

    “And we can determine that, yes, atheists and agnostics do in fact have an intellectual understanding of the basic premises of what claims faiths make to their congregations at least as strong as the understanding of the faiths’ adherents.”

    Neither this survey or your statement makes it so. We know that the survey tests knowledge not only of a person’s own religion, but that person’s knowledge of other people’s religions. And, as I pointed out in comment 16, the survey screws up the meaning of transubstantiation so we know even the people who designed the questions don’t seem to understand what they’re trying to discover.

    JJE: “So yes, in this morass of conversation, religious experience can both be “valuable” (personally) and “worthless” (for establishing truth). Your point as I took it was as an empirical truth issue. Otherwise, why would you ask this:
    “And by the way, since when is “experiential knowledge of religion” accepted as evidence of anything?”
    Thus, I took you to be saying that when discussing the god question, personal religious experience isn’t valuable. ”

    No, JJE, I was being sarcastic. I was amused by the idea that an atheist’s personal religious experience seemed to be acceptable to you only because that experience eventually led to atheism. Meanwhile, I showed that many other people’s experiences have led them to leave the religious institutions of their childhood but retain their faith. They either remain unaffiliated with an organized religion or join another organization.

    And even those who stay within a religious institution may not agree with the dogma of that institution, as I proved with the surveys I cited in comment 22.

    JJE: “And even if experience were important (as you also seem to indicate), insofar as people can share experience on anything, deconverts who are currently atheists share quite a bit with religious people.”

    And see, that’s where you’re wrong. I have no idea what it’s like to grow up in a fundamentalist society as george apparently did. I didn’t share his experiences and he didn’t have mine. George can certainly know what it’s like to be religious in his experience, but he doesn’t how I grew up.

    So if you want to play “Who’s smarter than a religious 5th grader” go ahead, but it’s not relevant to a large number of the population. And if they really need to know how many gospels there are, they very likely know how to find out.

    “In summary, on average, religious critics are knowledgeable enough to engage believers on the tenets of their faith. Critics aren’t “know-nothings”. Moreover, if anyone argues that experience needs to be brought into the equation (confusingly, you seem to be arguing it both ways), then many current atheists don’t lack for that either.”

    In summary, you haven’t proven anyone – religious or critics with the likely exception of fundamentalists – have enough knowledge of any other believers faith to know what the tenets are. And one person’s experience, while valid, doesn’t necessarily inform them about someone else’s experience.

  33. #33 J.J.E.
    September 30, 2010

    In summary, you haven’t proven anyone – religious or critics with the likely exception of fundamentalists – have enough knowledge of any other believers faith to know what the tenets are. And one person’s experience, while valid, doesn’t necessarily inform them about someone else’s experience.

    Well, why didn’t you just come out and say this clearly in the very beginning? Nobody has anything to say anything about anybody else’s experience. As a result, everyone’s religious tenets are so intensely personal and inaccessible to outsiders (conveniently defined), that nobody has enough knowledge to claim their criticisms aren’t based in ignorance. That about right? So, there’s seldom or never a basis for criticism, right?

  34. #34 TB
    October 1, 2010

    No. But please, continue to make assumptions in a patronizing manner. I’m sure that’ll be a winning strategy for you.

  35. #35 Conan the Pseudonymous
    October 1, 2010

    The important things are these: a) being forthright in criticising religion is no indication of being ignorant of it, and knowing the importance of the Quran to Muslims doesn’t mean that an atheist – or indeed anyone – might not still treat it as just another book, and b) not being part of the in-group defined by self-identification doesn’t mean that you can’t criticise the activities and beliefs of the in-group. I’m not part of the Bay City Rollers fan club, but I can still say that the Bay City Rollers are shit. Never been to a live show, either. I’ve also never joined the Nazi party, but I know a darn sight more about authoritarianism, genuine Nazi party activities, and the stupidity of it all than someone who signed up because they liked the uniforms. It is totally unnecessary to experience something “properly” to criticise it or believe that it would be better if it didn’t exist.

    Atheists are regularly accused of either not understanding enough about religion intellectually or, if evidence is shown of this intellectual understanding a la this new Pew poll, of not understanding religion on its experiential level. But there are a) many atheists who were once as religious as one can be, with daily church attendance and absolute devotion, even to the point of going to a seminary, as well as b) many self-identifying “religious” people whose actions go against their own self-appointed ideals and for whom religion is really not as important as their self-identification might suggest.

    ERGO, claiming that atheists – even ones who have never been to church – cannot criticise religion because they don’t understand it is insane. Obviously solely criticising creationists is not going to help argue against more moderate Christians who accept evolution or really don’t care one way about the issue. But equally obviously, focusing arguments on the most moderate and white-bread of believers is not going to help combat any of the things associated with fundamentalist belief, like giving money to prevent gay marriage from becoming legal.

    This literally boils down simply to: people are individuals, and religion is a different kettle of fish to each one. There is no one thing of “being Catholic”. That doesn’t mean we can’t object to the Catholic church generally, or that our understanding of Catholicism is inherently less than a weekly church-goer, or that their “knowledge” accumulated over years of being part of the Catholic in-group is of a wholly different kind than knowledge of what the Catholic church ideally preaches. We all have different kinds and different levels of knowledge about different aspects of different religions. Atheists are not a category apart, and can comment on religion just as freely as people comment on music or Nazism.

  36. #36 J.J.E.
    October 1, 2010

    TB:

    In summary, you haven’t proven anyone – religious or critics with the likely exception of fundamentalists – have enough knowledge of any other believers faith to know what the tenets are. And one person’s experience, while valid, doesn’t necessarily inform them about someone else’s experience.

    O.K. Then what does that mean? Does Conan get it right minus the italicized part? Or do accept the italicized part as well?

    This literally boils down simply to: people are individuals, and religion is a different kettle of fish to each one. There is no one thing of “being Catholic”. That doesn’t mean we can’t object to the Catholic church generally, or that our understanding of Catholicism is inherently less than a weekly church-goer, or that their “knowledge” accumulated over years of being part of the Catholic in-group is of a wholly different kind than knowledge of what the Catholic church ideally preaches. We all have different kinds and different levels of knowledge about different aspects of different religions. Atheists are not a category apart, and can comment on religion just as freely as people comment on music or Nazism.

  37. #37 J.J.E.
    October 1, 2010

    The italics should only highlight the last sentence. HTML fail.

  38. #38 TB
    October 1, 2010

    Conan’s post is full of strawmen. He can comment all he wants, it’s a free county.

    What it means is you could assume that American Catholics oppose birth control or homosexuality based on the dogma and comments by church leaders. But if you look at the actual data, you’ll see that most American Catholics have no problem with birth control and a clear majority think homosexuality is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue to begin with.

    So if I want to comment effectively I’m not going to assume my knowledge of religious trivia has any bearing on someone else’s religious beliefs. YMMV but I doubt it.

  39. #39 J.J.E.
    October 1, 2010

    In the end, I think many people know very little about religion and don’t really think about it. But I think encouraging them to think about it is important. In fact, I think what would end up being an effective way to discourage faith and criticize religion (and this is how I tend to do it) is adopt a partially Socratic method wherein I ask somebody about their beliefs. Using my knowledge of the Bible (I don’t really encounter many people of other faiths on a close personal basis), I direct the conversation to beliefs that people don’t actually hold and then contrast that with their almost universal acceptance of the Bible as being in some important way “authoritative” or at the very least “very important”.

    Almost every nominal Christian I have ever met in my entire life holds the Bible to be authoritative in at least some way. Even someone like John Shelby Spong, who is ready to jettison most of the Bible’s literal meaning (and indeed calls it “that terrible text”), keeps coming back to the Bible as a source of inspiration. It is quite difficult to get less fundamentalist than Spong. Anyway, if I’m able to get people to adopt a perspective half as “liberal” as Spong’s, I feel like they are more likely to lapse into non-theism of some variety rather than liberal theism. This wouldn’t be possible without knowledge of the Bible and using their personal (or so-called “wrong”) beliefs about their texts as leverage.

    When you suggest that people’s true beliefs and tenets can’t be discovered until you query them, you’re right. But that’s part of the point. Often, when they realize how personal their beliefs are and that their beliefs not only contradict other sects and the literal words of their holy texts, but also the theology of their own pastor/pope/whatever, that is often among the most useful points a religious critic can make. Many people (though not everyone) feel uncomfortable when they realize how personal and/or idiosyncratic and/or “wrong” (vis a vis their nominal faith) their beliefs are. Usually, their “wrong” beliefs (for people I encounter anyway) are actually deeper than religion. And this is important to point out. Like accepting gays and accepting contraception. Many religious people do it, and when confronted with the fact that they made this decision themselves, it helps to point out that fact and help them realize that they didn’t come up with the idea of the nominal faith they follow, but that they did come up with plenty of good ideas that contradicts that nominal faith. Of course, some people internalize their personal beliefs AS DERIVED FROM THEIR religion and then comment on how great that religion is. This is pernicious and difficult to deal with. But I think it helps to point this out. At the very least they can recognize that important changes in their faith is driven by people, not by supernatural agents.

    In this way, I think it is indeed very important to acknowledge that atheists and agnostics know more than the average believer. I suspect that familiarity with the origins of personal beliefs and how they comport with religious texts and doctrines is a strong force in deconversion. Indeed, one of Dennett’s interviewees said as much about seminary.

  40. #40 Deepak Shetty
    October 1, 2010

    @TB
    What it means is you could assume that American Catholics oppose birth control or homosexuality based on the dogma and comments by church leaders. But if you look at the actual data, you’ll see that most American Catholics have no problem with birth control and a clear majority think homosexuality is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue to begin with.
    Ah but those Catholics who don’t fall in the *most* mentioned above, why do they oppose birth control or homosexuality? For that matter why do mormons oppose homosexuality?

  41. #41 TB
    October 2, 2010

    JJE: Maybe.

    Deepak: Ah HA! Why do you think I don’t believe those views are a problem?

  42. #42 Conan the Pseudonymous
    October 2, 2010

    What it means is you could assume that American Catholics oppose birth control or homosexuality based on the dogma and comments by church leaders. But if you look at the actual data, you’ll see that most American Catholics have no problem with birth control and a clear majority think homosexuality is either morally acceptable or not a moral issue to begin with.

    Which is precisely my point. People have views that differ from what they self-identify as. There is a continuum of beliefs from strong religious views through moderate religious views to atheism. Different individuals fall in different parts of that continuum despite self-identifying as something else.

    So what can atheists comment on? Well, they can comment on theology. But when they do that, people say they don’t engage with religion as practiced on the ground. Atheists can comment on ordinary religious practice and how it is inconsistent. But then they get criticised for attacking religious moderates, who should be their allies against pernicious fundamentalism, apparently. Atheists can comment on fundamentalists, but then they get criticised for focusing their attacks on only a tiny subset of religion while ignoring the ordinary good people who are moderately religious and they get further criticised for exaggerating the harm religion does.

    So it’s whack-a-mole, which we already knew. And thus, strawmen are actually a good idea, because at least it’s a target, an unambiguous one. The same goes for theology. As for me, I’ve never been one to criticise ordinary religious practice, or even moral issues in religion. I’m interested only in whether or not there is a god and the issue directly surrounding that, so I’m much, much more interested in theological arguments than in other things. I think that’s mostly a result of living in a society where religion isn’t important. I don’t have to worry about it. PZ Myers is in different straits, and I find American atheists a little more touchy. Which, honestly, I think to be absolutely fine.

    There’s no real universality to what Catholics practice, except their self-identification as Catholics. But we can find out what Catholics are “supposed to believe” according to their “own” church and criticise that – and oftentimes this is a good idea. Ordinary Catholics give money to church organisations when they go to church. This money can go to “charitable” work in Africa which emphasises abstinence and won’t give out condoms, thus furthering the problem of AIDS. So attacking the big dogmas, that may or may not actually apply to ordinary Catholics in their daily lives, is a good policy, as it can make people think twice about funding something they actually disagree with. Intellectual understanding of religion is really the all-important one. “Experiential” stuff is for when you’re lying to the religious to seduce them into your worldview instead of reasoning them. “Look, I’m a kind, gentle atheist, and I crack sensitive and moral jokes and awkwardly reference popular culture, just like your pastor! I even wear white shirts and pose sanctimoniously sometimes.” And the religious are supposed to think, “gee, atheists aren’t so bad.” That isn’t the way it has worked in Sweden, or the UK, or Denmark, or anywhere with a large non-religious population. Ridicule. Satire. Anger. The Life of Brian.

    Assuming that atheists have no understanding of religion on either experiential or intellectual levels is a complete canard in any case.

  43. #43 J. J. Ramsey
    October 2, 2010

    Conan the Pseudonymous: “And thus, strawmen are actually a good idea, because at least it’s a target, an unambiguous one.”

    WTF?! Sorry, but if you really think straw men are ever a good idea, then I don’t want to know you.

    Conan the Pseudonymous: “That isn’t the way it has worked in Sweden, or the UK, or Denmark, or anywhere with a large non-religious population. Ridicule. Satire. Anger. The Life of Brian.”

    Um, Conan, religion in Europe has been dying in Europe through apathy rather than direct attack.

  44. #44 Deepak Shetty
    October 2, 2010

    @TB

    “Ah HA! Why do you think I don’t believe those views are a problem?

    Did I say you didnt believe those views are a problem?.

    You were trying to play down the importance of those views by saying ooh most religious people don’t believe that! (even though a majority do – as evidenced that even in liberal California Proposition 8 passed by a majority).

  45. #45 TB
    October 3, 2010

    Deepak: Nonsense. I’m simply skewering the very bad assumption that one religion fits all.

    Conan: “So what can atheists comment on? Well, they can comment on theology. But when they do that, people say they don’t engage with religion as practiced on the ground. ”

    No, the criticism I’ve seen is twofold. First, The assumption that people define their religion along fundamentalist lines or even the dogma of the institution they identify with – the survey data I’ve cited proves that wrong. Second, that when commenting on religion many again go towards the fundamentalist well without actually engaging theologians doing the serious thinking. People who would agree that fundamentalism is wrong and live in a rational world but in spite of that continue to have faith. Conflating them with fundamentalists is just plain wrong.

  46. #46 Deepak Shetty
    October 3, 2010

    @TB
    “I’m simply skewering the very bad assumption that one religion fits all. ”
    Yah yah I do know how much you like burning strawmen.
    The simple fact is a discriminatory law (Prop 8 ) was passed because a majority of religious people voted for it. you might try to say well a majority of Catholic’s are pro gay marriage or whatever .. but the majority of religious people are not . You and the accomodationists are rarely able to admit it