Atheists Know Their Religion

Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation. And Maimonides was the leading rabbi of the Middle Ages. Guess what? I’m an atheist.

You may be surprised that a godless person such as myself would have the answers to bewildering questions such as, “Where was Jesus born?” and “Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation?” Yet, according to a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey, atheists are the most qualified American demographic when it comes to answering religious trivia. The survey sampled over 3,400 Americans and asked 32 “basic” questions on the Bible, world religions and famous religious leaders. On average, atheists took the gold, correctly answering twenty-one of the questions, the highest of any religious affiliation. The silver and bronze went to two religious minority groups – Jews and Mormons – who averaged 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively.

The results of the survey are an interesting blend of comedy and lunacy. For instance, 45 percent of Americans have no idea the Koran is a holy book, let alone which religion uses it (Islam, by the way) and 32 percent are unfamiliar with the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Over 50 percent of American Protestants are clueless when it comes to knowing that Martin Luther is the German theologian who broke away from the Catholic Church. Speaking of Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI would surely throw his pointy hat in a fit of rage if he discovered that 45 percent of his American faithful did not know the Eucharist is actually the body and blood of Christ.

These results would be more surprising if not for the fact that the survey concluded that nearly half (48 percent) of religious Americans “seldom” or “never” read about their own religion, not to mention the 70 percent who state they seldom or never inquire about other religions. That doesn’t seem kosher. Perhaps if the devout members of our country read their Scriptures more often they would score higher on rudimentary poll examinations. I would also guess that if more Americans read their Bibles, a fresh crop of American atheists would blossom.

This survey strikes a larger nerve when we understand that religious beliefs and a person’s outlook on society are joined at the hip. The ironic realization that half of pious Americans do not read their Bibles leaves them both ignorant of their own faith, and vulnerable. For many Americans, this void is filled with crackpot sermons from religious zealots such as Bishop Eddie Long and Pastor Rick Warren. This is when the biblical ignorance of the faithful becomes damaging. It allows these holy con men to pick and choose the Scripture that best fits their agenda. How else to explain Pastor Warren’s ability to utilize passages to further his belief that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry or that evolution is a mere “theory”? His answers are derived straight from Leviticus and Genesis, where homosexuality is a capital offense in God’s eyes and Adam and Eve were the first  homo sapiens to roam the earth.

And yet, I cannot recall the last time I heard a rousing preachment about some of the lesser-known Biblical virtues, such as when Jesus instructed that unruly slaves be “beaten severely” (Luke 12:47). Or the heartwarming tale when God decided the punishment for working on the Sabbath is death (Exodus 31:14). The penalty for blasphemy? Death (Leviticus 24:16). How about the punishment for cursing one’s parents? You guessed it, death (Leviticus 20:9). These classics are not sermonized anymore because we have grown to realize these are inherently evil teachings. Any rational person who reads these texts feels a sense of revulsion.

Even the Ten Commandments, the most renowned compilation of biblical precepts, have much ground to make up. The list seems it would benefit from a few additional moral axioms. For starters, I recommend “Do not abuse children” and, “Do not rape.”

It is time for religious Americans to pick up their nearest Gospel, Tanakh or Koran and examine for themselves whether the teachings inside will move society forward instead of back to the Bronze Age. Not only will this boost our average scores on Pew religious surveys, it will also enable us to engage in a more modern debate on issues such as gay marriage and stem cell research. I will even lend my own Bible to anyone who wishes to brush up on his or her catechism. After all, “What would Jesus do?”

Sean Burch is third-year Political Science major. He can be reached at sburch@uci.edu