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The United States of America is populated overwhelmingly by Christians. Poll after poll shows that between 75% and 85% of American citizens identify with some denomination of Christianity, and though this percentage has declined somewhat in recent years, it is still a great majority. It would be correct to say that the U.S. is, in fact if not in law, a Christian nation.

However, there is reason to believe that this widespread commitment is neither as deep nor as substantial as it may at first appear. If one takes the time to look below the surface, the evidence paints a very different picture.

With any kind of poll, there is always the risk that the people polled will give an answer because they think that’s what they’re supposed to say, not because it’s the truth. This is a special risk with polls of religious affiliation. Religion, in our society, has become so linked with ideals of morality and social virtue that people may be tempted to answer that they belong to a certain religion because they think they should, not because they actually practice the religion or know anything about it. Likewise, people’s answers may reflect what they aspire to be, more than what they actually are. (Should someone who goes to church on Christmas and Easter and otherwise has no religious affiliation really call themselves a Christian?)

Consider some of the findings from an excellent August 2005 article in Harper’s magazine, “The Christian Paradox“:

  • Only four in ten Americans can name more than four of the Ten Commandments (let’s see if I can do it without looking them up: have no other gods, don’t make graven images, don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t work on the Sabbath, honor your parents, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, don’t bear false witness, and don’t covet).
  • Astonishingly, even to me, only half can name even one of the four gospels.
  • 12% of Americans – which is something in excess of thirty million people – believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
  • And finally, three-quarters of Americans – very nearly the nation’s entire Christian population – believe that the Bible teaches that “God helps those who help themselves”. This maxim was actually uttered by Benjamin Franklin, and appears nowhere in scripture.

Another source adds even more details, such as that one-third of Americans could not put the following events in order: Abraham, the Old Testament prophets, Jesus’ death, and Pentecost. Half did not know that the Passover story was in the Book of Exodus, or that Moses came chronologically after Isaac and before Saul, Israel’s first king.

Armed with facts like this, the 85% figure begins to look suspect. How deep can a person’s devotion to Christianity be if they have never taken the time to learn even the most basic facts about the book they theoretically believe to be the word of God? There is clearly a substantial disconnect between what Americans profess and what they practice. Granted, the Bible is an excessively long and often tedious book, but that excuse should not be available to a Christian. One would think that, if a person truly believed some book to be the written words of the creator of the universe, they would make the time to read it.

This news ought to be a great source of hope to atheists. If people were actually familiar with the Bible and still believed it, there might be reason to despair, but as it is, there is reason to hope that they believe in it only because they have a false impression of what it contains. If nothing else, it resoundingly confirms one very common aspect of Christian deconversion stories: that the authors were Christian until they actually read the Bible, and discovered for themselves the atrocities, absurdities, and contradictions it contains. The Yale theologian George Lindbeck, lamenting the sorry state of biblical knowledge, wrote that, “When I first arrived at Yale, even those who came from nonreligious backgrounds knew the Bible better than most of those now who come from churchgoing families”. This is not a coincidence. I would dare say that, if not a majority, then a substantial percentage of lay Christians are still Christians precisely because they have never read the Bible for themselves. Conversely, it is not surprising that those people who are best aware of what that book contains are largely nonbelievers.

Ironically, it is in this respect that I am in full agreement with Christian proselytizers. People should read the Bible, and they should read all of it, not just the parts retold in Sunday-school stories that every believer knows. (I do, however, also believe that people should read the scriptures of other religions and the writings of atheists as well; in that respect, I probably differ from evangelicals who would rather that people should not be exposed to other sources of information.) I am confident that reading it and understanding what it actually says will do far more to aid the atheist cause than any argument we could ever put forward on our own, and would doubtless spur many people who are clinging to Christianity merely out of habit or inertia to take the final step away and join our side.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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