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Religion Poll Bears Out Jewish Braininess

Though the atheist/agnostics have our number

Marc Tracy
September 28, 2010

In its write-up of the new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll, the New York Times noted that, based on a sampling of over 3400 Americans, Jews are outpaced in their knowledge of world religions (and a few other matters) only by atheist/agnostics. It also noted that, of all the questions asked, the one that the lowest number of respondents answered correctly concerned the great medieval philosopher Maimonides: Only eight percent—and only 57 percent of Jews!—knew, “Was Maimonides Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu or Mormon?” Guys: Have we got a book for you!

Some further digging into the report (which you can download in full here) reveals the Jews (and the Mormons) acquitting themselves very well, which probably has as much to do with socioeconomics as anything else. And as for those atheist/agnostics, well, who do you really think they are?

• Slightly more Mormons (92 percent) than Jews (90 percent) know who Moses is. Ditto Abraham (87 percent to 83 percent) and Job (70 percent to 47 percent).

• More Jews knew that Martin Luther inspired the Reformation (70 percent) than not only Catholics (42 percent, which makes a certain degree of sense) but than Protestants (47 percent)! C’mon, guys! Oh, and Jews scored a rare victory here over the generally impressive atheist/agnostics (68 percent). Which is ironic, given that Luther was a notorious anti-Semite.

• On the two explicitly Jewish questions, we wiped the floor with everyone else. 94 percent of Jews know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday; next highest are the atheists/agnostics (56 percent) and the Mormons (55 percent). As for Maimonides, 57 percent of Jews knew about him, as compared to 19 percent of atheist/agnostics, 10 percent of nothing-in-particulars, and single digits for everyone else.

• We know more about Mormons than everyone but the Mormons. For more on Mormonism, here is a helpful primer.

• We know more about Islam than everyone else, although Muslims were not among the religious groups counted in the poll (which Pew doesn’t appear to explain).

• Jews and Mormons know the most about atheism other than atheist/agnostics; Jews know the most about agnosticism other than atheist/agnostics

• Jews knew the most about societal questions—politics, science, history, and literature—than anyone but, again, those pesky atheist/agnostics.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.