Atheists, faithful discuss poll claiming nonbelievers know more about world religions

Friday, October 15, 2010
The Rev. Bob Towner and Bryan Schilligo, an atheist, pose outside of Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau. (BOB MILLER)

Don't try to convince Bryan Schilligo there is a God. He's already done the research.

The 22-year-old Southeast Missouri State University senior has looked closely at the world's major religions. Christianity. Judaism. Islam. Buddhism. He's also taken a glance at some of the lesser-known Eastern ones like Taoism, Jainism and Sikhism.

It led him to this conclusion: "I do not believe in God," he said. "It's not that I'm sure there is no God. I can't prove it. But I have not been presented with any evidence that causes me to believe in one."

Schilligo's religious investigation and subsequent conclusion may shed some light on a recent national survey that suggests atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about various faiths than their faithful counterparts. A survey released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveals that atheists and agnostics outperformed Christians about the core teachings, history and leading figures in world religion.

On average, Americans correctly answered 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey. Atheists and agnostics averaged 20.9, while Protestants answered 16 correctly and Catholics on average scored a 14.7.

On questions about Christianity, including a battery of questions about the Bible, Mormons and evangelical Protestants show the highest levels of knowledge and atheists/agnostics stood out for their knowledge of other world religions. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey was a nationwide poll conducted May 19 through June 6 among 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, on land lines and cell phones, in English and Spanish.

Area church leaders and religious scholars in Cape Girardeau and Jackson expected some results and were surprised by others. But all agreed the results revealed nothing about individual Christian faith, just that Christians may not know as much about world religions as atheists.

"It doesn't surprise me that atheists would be knowledgeable about what they're rejecting," said Ron Watts, pastor of La Croix United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. "If they're rejecting an opinion, they're probably pretty invested in it -- arguing, researching and talking about it."

But Watts and others don't subscribe to the theory that religious investigation automatically leads to nonbelief.

"For every atheist that says study led them to disbelief, I can find one or more people of faith who will tell you the opposite," Watts said. "And just because a Christian doesn't love history doesn't mean they can't love God, love their neighbor and live as a Christian."

Most Americans, in fact most people worldwide, profess to believe in God, with polls showing as many as 90 percent saying they are a believer in some divinity.

But it was Schilligo's lack of belief that caused him to start a new group on campus called the Secular Student Association, made up of about 30 atheists and agnostics. The group meets once a week, on Sundays, to discuss religion, science, philosophy and ethics. A recent topic was the proposal to build a mosque near ground zero.

Schilligo, a native of Florissant, Mo., is not argumentative about his beliefs or anyone else's and he didn't gloat about the study's findings. He doesn't even insist that there isn't a divine hand.

He just says he doesn't think there is.

"I believe any intellectually honest atheist has to be open to the possibility," he said. "But I wasn't surprised by the study, to be honest. It seems to me most of the people I've talked to who consider themselves atheist and agnostics do the research."

But Schilligo says he knows some "brilliant" Christians, Muslims and Jews. "Intelligence does not equate into atheism," he said. "I think this trend just shows that many atheists are very intelligent."

Intelligent, maybe. But not trusted, said Brandon Scheldt, a Southeast instructor and faculty adviser to the Secular Student Association.

"We are the least trusted minority, so you have to sort of treat it like a lawyer," said Scheldt, who also is an atheist. "We have to do research based on argumentation. The best way to support your own opinion is to put yourself in the shoes of your opposition. If you want to have the strongest potential argument for them, you have to know the weaknesses in your own."

But Scheldt doesn't even like the word atheist, which he says is a religious term on its face.

"It starts with the assumption that theism is the norm," he said. "That's like saying if you don't believe in unicorns, you're an a-unicornist."

The study has caused discussions in university classrooms and inspired sermons from pulpits across the nation.

Dr. Dennis Holt, a professor of philosophy who is teaching a class at Southeast called "Religion in America," said his students explored the survey as a class. Most Americans incorporate religion into their lives and consider themselves believers, he said. People should understand, he said, some believers consider the spiritual component over doctrine.

Someone of the Catholic faith, for example, may not understand that when they take the wafer as part of Communion, Catholic doctrine says the wafer actually becomes the body of Christ and is not meant to be a symbolic gesture.

"They may not know that, but they feel a profound religious duty to participate," Holt said.

And it may not matter to the believers either way, he said.

"What if you don't know that?" he said. "I'd be really cautious drawing speculative generalizations from this."

There is one caveat, said the Rev. Bob Towner, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Cape Girardeau. Not knowing about or accepting people of other faiths leads to fear and misunderstanding, he said.

"The study's findings are true," Towner said. "We tend to be anti-intellectual in America. We don't really care to investigate beyond whether it feels good. While some are very well versed in their faith, some can't tell you much about it. They believe in a magic book. They don't necessarily want to investigate."

Knowledge of other religions, especially, could lead to better understanding of other cultures and make them less fearful. That could reduce violence and hate, he said.

"When I preach, I do preach the Christian gospel as completely as I know how," he said. "But I also make references to the other religions of the world. We don't live in an isolated world anymore. Whether we embrace or reject it, it is a pluralistic world. We live among people of many religions."

The Rev. John Harth of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Jackson brought up the survey during a recent sermon. He said he doesn't hold much stock in the survey and that he doesn't believe it says much about faith anyway.

"Faith is a gift from God," he said. "It is to be accepted or rejected. You can do all the surveys you want about religion, but the most important thing is that we have faith."


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