The recent Pew study that found Atheists and Agnostics had greater knowledge of traditional religion (such as Christianity) than did Christians seems to surprise quite a few people.
See the study results here, but the summary is that folks were asked a series of 32 questions about religion. Nearly half of the questions were specifically about Judea-Christian knowledge of the Bible and Judea-Christian religion. The other half of the questions were a mix of questions about religion in the larger world, religion and the constitution, etc.
Folks who identified themselves as Christian did not do well on this survey. In fact, the folks who were the most knowledgable about religion were folks who identified themselves as either Agnostic or Atheist. It should be noted that those who identified themselves as Jewish were not far behind the Agnostics and the Atheists. Mormons scored well too. (I should note that it appears that Mormons are lumped in with Christians, so the Christian scores without the Mormon help would have been dismal…)
One other thing that jumped out at me: Those who said that they took Scripture literally – that they thought that the Bible represented the actual words of G-d – those folks scored significantly lower in actual knowledge, while those who did not believe the Bible should be taken literally scored significantly higher in actual knowledge.
Surprised? The results make sense to me. Folks who’ve gone to the trouble of thinking through religion, and have consciously decided to call identify as Agnostic or Atheist have probably asked tougher questions, and have probably gone through more analysis and study to arrive at their conscious decision. My guess is that if you were able to pull out the folks who called themselves Christian AND who’ve arrived at that identification through the same analysis and study would probably do as well as the Agnostics and the Atheists – they’d probably do even better.
On the other hand, if you accept Religion as something that just is, and you don’t ask questions about it, you probably don’t know much about it. In fact, you probably don’t see it as a problem that you don’t know much about it. You’ve decided to drink the kool-aid without questioning what’s in it.
The results point toward the need to dig in and ask tough questions of religion. Be willing to push against the places where there aren’t good answers. Accept uncertainty regarding where your questions may take you, and be willing to embrace the mystery of the places you might end up.
I don’t buy that asking the questions will lead a person automatically to a lack of faith. In fact, I strongly believe that it’s the job of religion to encourage folks to ask the tough questions, and to help them to journey toward relationship with G-d. Because at the end of the journey most people will, in fact, find G-d. Sure there will be many who don’t find G-d, but I many people will.
Whether the person who took the journey ended up finding G-d or not finding G-d, it’s the journey itself that’s important. Agnostics and Atheists appear to be more open to taking the journey, although many might argue that they’ve predetermined that they’ll not find G-d on the journey. Sure there are some of those, just like there are some Christians who predetermine that they will find G-d.
I say, give it a whirl – step out onto the dance floor – take the journey!