This Pew Religion Survey is quite interesting, and worth taking if you are not feeling sufficiently smug today. There are widespread media reports about how this reveals that atheists know more about religion than botherers of god. How is this news? I got 14 out of 15 by the way.
Catholics do notably worse than Protestants, which is not surprising when you consider the biblical slant of the questions. Vaticanland has never been big on talking up the bible. Mormons score highly for the obvious reasons that the only people that would admit to being Mormon are, by default and definition, religious fanatics.
UPDATE: Another reason for good showing by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints occurred to me. One of the 15 questions in the survey was explicitly about Joseph Smith, the deluded illiterate responsible for the epic silliness of the Mormon faith. This gives members of that particular sect an obvious head-start, since Smith is far, far less likely to known by non-Mormons. Some will rebut this by saying that there were questions about mainstream Christianity, Judaism and Islam in the survey that were similarly helpful to members of those respective factions. This doesn’t stack up for me. While all religious belief is absurd, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are at least well-known. Questions about the big three monotheistic religions fall under the heading of “general knowledge”, and this is evidenced by the fact that the dogma-free — atheists and agnostics — scored better than Christians, Muslims or Jews. Only 47 percent of respondents to the Pew Survey knew that Smith was Mormon — compared to, let me guess, 100 percent of Mormons — this gives them a small but significant advantage when the survey consisted of only 15 questions.
Why do I care so much? Mainly because I resent the proximity in a knowledge-based survey between non-believers and believers of any stripe — and none more so than Mormons, a group I have made a hobby of mocking since they tried to convert me in Japan in 1987.
Remember my mythical Wanganui crime wave, whereupon I played silly buggers with a bar-graph’s Y-Axis to create the misleading impression, for political purposes, that violent crime had shot up in a provincial NZ town that may or may not have been Wanganui? In about 1991, aged 20?
Juvenile shenanigans, right?
Think again. The fat, fifty and bald Republican Party here in the US has taken a leaf from the same playbook with this shameless effort depicting federal spending as a percentage of GDP. It was produced as part of the their “pledge” to voters in the lead up to the mid-term elections in November — elections they appear set to win in a thumping fashion.
Source: Jonathon Cohn’s excellent blog at the New Republic
The graph as presented:
The actual graph should look like this:
One of my first acts as a opposition researcher with the NZ Labour Party, aged about 7, was to put together a graph that purported to show a sharp increase in violent crime in a provincial town; which one I can’t recall. It was a stunning revelation to me at the time that, by fiddling with the parameters of a graph, you could dramatically increase its impact. If, for example, there were six armed robberies in Wanganui in 1992 and nine in 1993, by starting the Y axis on a bar graph at five you can create an instantaneous crime spree. Because the average Wanganui (Taupo? Bay of Plenty?) journalist is probably as scientifically rigorous as I am, it dominated the headlines for at least one news cycle and earned me some welcome kudos along the way. In retrospect, this very unsophisticated statistical trickery taught me three lifelong lessons, namely:
Never trust a statistic when it supports the agenda of the person who came up with it;
There is no such thing as an objective fact;
It’s much easier to win an argument when you set the rules of engagement.
My little Wanganui (or Taranaki? Hawkes Bay?) crime wave produced a treasure trove of Machiavellian insights, foremost among them being that the presentation of statistics as a proxy for ‘objective truth’ is one of the most pernicious and pervasive forms of bullshit in the world today.
Having said all that, there are some statistical findings too sumptuous and gratifying to resist. Okcupid, an online dating site, has recently crunched its member profiles to gain a better understanding of its target audience. They sliced and diced this data in many revealing ways, but most interesting to me was how they used the Coleman-Liau Index to approximate the U.S. grade level necessary to comprehend the self-composed profiles of each of its 500,000 plus members. They then cross-referenced the findings with religiosity — as well as degrees of religiosity (i.e. strong or weak belief). Here is the delectable outcome:
Now, I am not saying that reading age is a perfect indicator of intelligence. Sorry, let me correct myself: I am saying that.
I can’t decide which of the following findings I like the most:
The highest reading age of all is among half-hearted Buddhists
Whereas strong religious belief has a negative correlation with reading level, the opposite is true of atheists who appear to become smarter the further they move from god.
Protestants are dumber than…well, everybody, and Muslims are smarter than Catholics (though less so than Jews, which must sting a little).
To highlight what this means in practice, especially for people who don’t immediately grasp the US grade system, here is a representative sample of books and plays recommended for 7th graders — or very committed Protestants:
Anne of Green Gables
The Miracle Worker
Harry Potter books
Chronicles of Narnia
In contrast, atheists and non-committal Buddhist are reading at a 9th grade level:
All Quiet on the Western Front
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Grapes of Wrath
Most pointedly, though, consider this: the most popular translation of the bible — the New International Version — requires a reading grade level of 8.4. In other words, the only Christians able to read and comprehend it are lapsed Catholics — or, to frame yet another way, the less you comprehend the words of the Bible, the more you are likely to believe them.