So you’ve seen the Pew survey, that shows that, among other things, atheists and agnostics tend to know a lot about religious doctrines and practices. Of particular interest to me in the ensuing discussions was Larison’s distinction between academic religious knowledge and lived religious experience. It’s simply not all that surprising that a religious believer who grew up with her faith culturally would not have high-level academic knowledge of the particulars of it. High-level academic knowledge is for Jesuits and converts. (Mutatis mutandis, natch.)
But it also speaks to a broader puzzle, especially regarding the recent games in the press and in blogs concerning Islam. Any fool can Google up a copy of a religious text and pull out verses to prove almost anything; the connection between disinterested academic discourse about the interpretation of a passage, breezy bloggy interpretations, and the experiences and beliefs of the average believer will wildly diverge (and may be indistinguishable from other cultural practices.)
In any case, it’s unfair to talk about the Pew results without offering an explanation of why atheists and agnostics tend to be well-informed about religion. My ex recto position: atheists tend to be highly educated; highly educated people tend to run into courses on world religions; and, it is also, in my experience, a common trait among the highly educated to have extraordinarily good memories for trivia. My knowledge of the Noble Eightfold Path is tucked somewhere between the book of Daniel and the Star Trek episode where Picard has to communicate in literary metaphors. And indeed, the results mention educational attainment as one thing that correlates with better academic religious knowledge; but apparently with that held constant, atheists still retain more religious knowledge.
Revised theory: the trivia gene eats God.