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pillsA study released today by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has Keith Olbermann scratching his head, some religious bloggers moving the goalposts, and most atheists…unsurprised.

The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey asked 32 questions to assess religious literacy. Protestants on average answered 16 correctly, which was also the average for Americans overall. Fifty percent. Catholics brought up the rear with a dismal 14.7 — below the U.S. average.

Top honors went to atheists and agnostics, with an average of 20.9 correct. Not surprising, really. It’s not so much that non-believers learn a lot about religion, though that is also true. It’s mostly the other way around: knowledge of religion, especially comparative religion, leads to disbelief in any version. Another argument for religious literacy, parents.

When it comes to questions about Christianity, Mormons do best (7.9 out of 12) — interesting, since many other Christians do not consider Mormons to be Christians — while Jews and atheists/agnostics stand out for their knowledge of other world religions. Out of 11 such questions on the survey, Jews answered 7.9 correctly and atheists/agnostics answered 7.5 correctly. Atheists/agnostics and Jews also did especially well on questions about the role of religion in public life, including a question about what the U.S. Constitution says about religion — a thing worth knowing, in my humble.

knowBy every measurable standard, the U.S. is the most religiously faithful and religiously ignorant country in the developed world. Europeans, by contrast, tend to be tremendously knowledgeable about religion (thanks in part to religious education in schools) AND very secular. Bright light doesn’t flatter the creature. That’s why all the candles.

According to the survey, forty-five percent of U.S. Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ. Over half of Protestants (53%) could not correctly identify Martin Luther as the person whose writings and actions birthed their half of Christendom.

Fewer than half of Americans (47%) know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist, and only 27 percent correctly identified Islam as the primary religion of Indonesia — the largest Muslim population on Earth.

There is something to the argument that religion is not just the sum of its facts, or even of its beliefs. It is also a question of community and identity, and yes, experience. But to pretend as some commentators are now doing that the details don’t matter is simply false. If you sit in the pew of, raise your children in, give your offerings to, and proudly wear the label of a given denomination, you lend credence to the beliefs and practices of that denomination. Some of those beliefs and practices just might be harmful or fatal if swallowed. So read the label.

Speaking of Pew studies, are you even in the right pew? Take the Belief-o-Matic Quiz!
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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.