Explaining Group Differences in Knowledge of Religion

As I noted in a recent post, the Pew Research Center survey of public knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics, Jews, and Mormons are the groups with by far the highest knowledge levels in this field. The disparity between these groups and the rest of the population persists even after controlling for education.

What explains the difference between these three groups and the general population? Jamelle Bouie and Matthew Yglesias argue that it is their status as religious minorities. As Bouie puts it:

To me, it’s no surprise that the highest scorers — after controlling for everything — were religious minorities: atheists, agnostics, Jews and Mormons. As a matter of simple survival, minorities tend to know more about the dominant group than vice versa. To use a familiar example, blacks — and especially those with middle-class lives — tend to know a lot about whites, by virtue of the fact that they couldn’t succeed otherwise; the professional world is dominated by middle-class whites, and to move upward, African Americans must understand their mores and norms. By contrast, whites don’t need to know much about African Americans, and so they don’t.

Likewise, religious minorities — while not under much threat of persecution — are well-served by a working knowledge of religion, for similar reasons; the United States is culturally Christian, and for religious minorities, getting along means understanding those reference points. That those religious minorities can also answer questions about other religious traditions is a sign of broader religious education that isn’t necessary when you’re in the majority.

I am skeptical. If Bouie’s theory were correct, the disparity between the three highest-scoring groups and the rest would be mainly the result of their strong performance in knowledge of Christianity – the majority religion in the US. Mormons (an average of 7.9 correct answers out of 12), atheists/agnostics (6.7) and Jews (6.3) do indeed score better on questions about Christianity than Christians do (6.0). But in the case of the Mormons, this is in large part accounted for by the fact that Mormons are Christians themselves, even if of an unusual kind. The 12 questions about Christianity are primarily about the Bible and its doctrines.Mormons recognize the Bible as one of their holy books (though they differ from other Christians in also paying deference to the Book of Mormon). In the case of atheists/agnostics and Jews, their main knowledge advantage over Christians comes from their much higher levels of knowledge about non-Christian “world religions” (mainly Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism). Jews got an average of 7.9 questions out of 11 in this category, atheists/agnostics 7.5, and Christians a mere 5.0 (the Mormon average was 5.6). While Jews, atheists and agnostics also outscored Christians on knowledge of Christianity, the margin was much smaller.

Thus, the main knowledge advantage of these three religious minorities came on questions that had little if any connection to “survival” as religious minorities in an overwhelmingly Christian society. Moreover, even the minority groups’ edge on knowledge of Christianity cannot be entirely attributed to this factor. After all, several of the questions about Christianity covered parts of the Bible that are also Jewish holy scriptures. Jews have reasons to know about them that are unrelated to their minority status. As for atheists and agnostics, a high percentage of them were raised Christian or Jewish and therefore might have acquired some biblical knowledge that way. In sum, the Bouie-Yglesias theory probably accounts for only a small percentage of the difference between the three high-scoring groups and the rest.

What does account for the difference between these three groups and the rest? I suspect that it is their greater cosmopolitanism. Jews, atheists, and Mormons are all notable for their unusually high levels of interest in other cultures, religions, and philosophies. In the former two cases, this is well-known. Mormons, by contrast, may strike some people as insular. However, the Church actually puts a high emphasis on education and many young Mormons spend two or three years as missionaries abroad, which exposes them to contact with other cultures and religious traditions. Although very different in their religious and (median) political beliefs, Mormons, atheists, and Jews are similar in their higher than average commitment to education and cosmopolitanism. For these reasons, it’s not surprising that these groups outscore the rest on measures of religious knowledge.