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Saturday, October 2, 2010

US Religious Knowledge Survey Proves What Atheists Have Known All Along

I see it all the time: to illustrate why she can't believe in her parent's religion, an atheist or agnostic kid quotes the ignorance, cruelty, or plain old contradiction contained in the parent's holy book - only to have the parent argue that the book doesn't really say that. The proof, of course, is easy to come by: the kid simply pulls the holy book off the parent's shelf, opens it to the right chapter, and points to the quote.

It's been a long-running joke among the nonbelievers that atheists know the holy books better than the faithful. For many people born into religion, a study of their family's religious text becomes the first step towards atheism. And it's no wonder: it must take some seriously dedicated willful ignorance not to notice the fact that the god of the book behaves more like the book's own devil, killing and torturing saints and sinners alike - or, at best, a petty warlord with a tiny penis, unsure of his power and terrified of the vagina.

A new study by the Pew Research Center gives credence to what the unbelievers have known for a while. A survey of nearly 3500 people in the US – the only developed country in the world in which religion still plays a significant social and political role – shows that atheists and agnostics know more about religion than the faithful, even – or should I say especially – when it comes to the faithful’s own doctrine. To the nonbelievers, this is a case of stating the obvious. We have long known that ignorance, willful or otherwise, is a necessary ingredient of religious faith.

When, at 17, I was transplanted from the atheist Soviet Union to the alien (and heavily religious) culture of the United States, I, like many other people, went looking for a Meaning. I read all three books of the Abrahamic religion, studied Buddhism and Hinduism, and even invited a Jew for Jesus home for dinner, to mostly hilarious results. To my shock, every page I read seemed to strengthen my familial atheism. Hinduism seemed like a quaint throwback to the simpler times (which might or might not have existed); Buddhism was useful but completely secular; and the Abrahamics – America’s scam of choice – seemed as idiotic and heavy-handed in their lies and cruelties as L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. Far from being touched by the mystery of organized religion, the only mystery I saw was that of seemingly reasonable people believing such obvious bullshit.

Unexamined atheism might be as dangerous as any unexamined ideology – my birth country’s history certainly makes a strong case against it. I’m happy that I had the opportunity to study religious texts and history. It’s made me a better, stronger atheist. Today, I consciously know what I might, unconsciously, have felt all along: that life is too complex for a Meaning. Instead, it’s full of meanings, coming together and breaking apart in a beautiful and ever-changing dance of exuberant complexity that can’t be quelled by simplistic human faith.


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