One of the important characteristics of mathematical sociology is that it can allow us to make predictions about how the world should work without a lot of detailed substantive knowledge. Obviously, this advantage seems like a handicap to some scholars, but I think otherwise and a recent study suggests that I may be correct. I refer, of course, to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center that has been getting a lot of attention. It finds that Atheists and Agnostics have more religious knowledge than any other group in the U.S.:
Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.
On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively.
Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.
Needless to say, this finding has journalists in a tizzy, perhaps especially because- as research by Edgell et al. recently demonstrated– atheists are not well-liked, often being perceived as elitist, snooty and amoral. Clearly, it would seem, such persons could not know about religion.
Even when you break the questions out by category, distinguishing knowledge of Christianity and the bible from knowledge of other world religions from knowledge of religion in U.S. public life, atheists and agnostics do as well or better than average in providing correct answers. And an appropriate question is, of course, why?
There are a number of theories, of course. Dave Silverman of American Atheists suggests in a recent New York Times article that the reason is because atheists and agnostics have spent a lot of time thinking about religion:
“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”
And Greg Smith, one of the study authors, makes a similar claim to CNN:
“Very few people say that they were raised as atheists and agnostics,” he explains.
About three out of four were raised as Christians, he says.
“They were raised in a faith and have made a decision to identify themselves with groups that tend to be fairly unpopular,” atheists and agnostics, he says.
“That decision presupposes having given some thought to these things,” which is strongly linked with religious knowledge, he says.
These claims may be correct, but they leave behind a small problem: why is it that the religious knowledge of Jews and Mormons is nearly as high as atheists? Indeed, the difference is probably not statistically real and yet many, if not most, Jews and Mormons were probably born into their faiths. Can we come up with a common explanation for all of their high scores?
Indeed, we can, thanks to the work of a giant of mathematical sociology, Peter M. Blau. In 1977 Blau published his classic “Inequality and Heterogeneity: A Primitive Theory of Social Structure,” in which he spent close to 300 pages explaining how simple aspects of population distributions could be used to explain a wide variety of social behavior. If you’re not in the mood to read 300 pages, you might also consider reading his 1977 American Journal of Sociology article titled, “A Macrosociological Theory of Social Structure,” which is essentially the short version of his book. I will focus on the article since I expect most of you don’t have the book handy.
In any case, among other topics Blau spends a great deal of time considering what is logically implied by a disparity in the sizes of two groups in a given society, eventually leading to his first theorem (AJS article, Pg. 35), as well as three sub-theorems:
T1: In the relation between any two groups, the rate of intergroup associations of the smaller group exceeds that of the larger.
T1.1: The proportion intermarried (or having another exclusive assocation, as mutual best friends) in the smaller group exceeds that in the larger.
T1.2: The mean number of intergroup associates in the smaller group exceeds that in the larrger.
T1.3: The mean amount of time spent in intergroup associations in greater for the smaller than for the larger group.
Essentially, Blau is arguing that if we have two groups, A and B, and those groups associate with each other, the rates of association will be different. Say that group A contains 10 persons while group B contains 100. If there is one cross-group association, then one A and one B associate with each other. This single relation, however, means that 10% of the members of A know a B, while only 1% of members of B know an A. If we increase the number of relations to ten and distribute them evenly, then 10% of members of B would know an A, while 100% of members of A would know a B. Thus, barring some very odd circumstances (e.g. there are ten relations that all include the same A but connect to ten different Bs) we can be fairly confident that a larger percentage of As will have direct contact with Bs than vice versa.
But what does this mean for knowledge of religion? Simply this: much of what we know about others, particularly the beliefs of others, we learn through contact with those others. If you are a member of group A in the above, you therefore will have a difficult time not knowing someone in group B or, alternatively, someone in group A who knows someone in group B. In contrast, if you are in group B, it will be quite easy to not know anyone in group A, or to not know anyone who knows someone in group A. If you never come into contact with an A, you may never learn very much about what makes them an A and not a B. And likewise, the heightened knowledge of religion exhibited by atheists, agnostics, Jews, and Mormons may all be attributable to their relatively low representation in the population. As minorities- in some cases very small minorities- they cannot help but know quite a bit about the majority that surrounds them but, by the same token, that majority may have fewer opportunities to learn about the minorities.
Are there other possible factors? Of course! The explanations offered by Smith and Silverman may well be relevant factors. Likewise, the emphasis on missionary work among Mormons may explain some of their exposure to, and knowledge of, other faiths. Yet, without even considering these specific factors, we already have reason to believe- thanks to Blau and mathematical sociology- that minorities should know more about majorities than the reverse. In other words, we can likely explain quite a bit of the effect using the simple numbers of such persons in the population, without having to postulate some more nebulous effect of different beliefs.
Mathematical sociology is often abstract, but it is that abstractness that lends it such power.
Blau, Peter M. 1977. Inequality and Heterogeneity: A Primitive Theory of Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.
Blau, Peter M. 1977. “A Macrosociological Theory of Social Structure.” The American Journal of Sociology, 83(1): 26-54.
Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists As ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review, 71(2): 211-234.