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September 28th, 2010
12:01 AM ET

Don't know much about religion? You're not alone, study finds

Odds are that you know Mother Teresa was Catholic, but what religion is the Dalai Lama?

How about Maimonides?

And - no Googling - what's the first book of the Bible? How about the first four books of the New Testament?

Americans who can answer all of those questions are relatively rare, a huge new study has found.

In fact, although the United States is one of the most religious developed countries in the world, most Americans scored 50 percent or less on a quiz measuring knowledge of the Bible, world religions and what the Constitution says about religion in public life.

The survey is full of surprising findings.

For example, it's not evangelicals or Catholics who did best - it's atheists and agnostics.

It's not Bible-belt Southerners who scored highest - they came at the bottom.

Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God did slightly worse than average, while those who say it is not the word of God scored slightly better.

Barely half of all Catholics know that when they take communion, the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, according to Catholic doctrine.

And only about one in three know that a public school teacher is allowed to teach a comparative religion class - although nine out of 10 know that teacher isn't allowed by the Supreme Court to lead a class in prayer.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life is behind the 32-question quiz, polling more than 3,400 Americans by telephone to gauge the depth of the country's religious knowledge.

Read CNN Belief Blog contributor and Pew adviser Stephen Prothero's take on the survey

"When it comes to religion, there are a lot of things that Americans are unfamiliar with. That's the main takeaway," says Greg Smith, a senior researcher at the think tank and one of the main authors of the survey.

Smith has a theory about why atheists did so well on the quiz - they have thought more about religion than most people.

"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.

The single strongest factor predicting how well a person does on the religious knowledge quiz is education - the more years of schooling a person has, the more they are likely to know about religion, regardless of how religious they consider themselves to be, Pew found.

"The No. 1 predictor without question is simply educational attainment," Smith said.

The think tank also asked a handful of general knowledge questions - such as who wrote "Moby-Dick" and who's the vice president of the United States - and found a link between religious knowledge and general knowledge.

Very few people scored high on religion questions and badly on general knowledge, or vice versa.

People who were members of religious youth groups also did well, he said.

"Religious education is an important factor that helps to explain knowledge - people who participated in youth groups get an average of two extra questions right," he said.

Jews and Mormons were close behind atheists and agnostics as the group who did best overall on the religion questions, and white evangelical Protestants also tended to get more than half right.

White Catholics averaged exactly half right, followed by mainline Protestants and people who said they were "nothing in particular," both of whom got just under half right.

Black Protestants got just over a third of the questions right, and Hispanic Catholics just under a third, the Pew Forum found.

The survey was inspired partly by CNN Belief Blog contributor Stephen Prothero's 2007 book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know - And Doesn't."

Because the Pew Forum couldn't find any indication that such a survey has ever been done before, it can't say if Americans today know more or less about religion now than they did in the past.

And the organization doesn't claim too much for its 32 questions.

They "are intended to be representative of a body of important knowledge about religion; they are not meant to be a list of the most essential facts," the Pew Forum says.

Only eight of the 3,412 survey respondents got all 32 questions right. Six got them all wrong.

- Newsdesk editor, The CNN Wire

Filed under: Atheism • Catholic Church • Christianity • Culture & Science • Islam • Judaism • Mormonism • United States

soundoff (1,855 Responses)
  1. Joe

    Why should I know anything about the bible when I don't believe in god?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:42 am |
  2. Lenny Pincus

    So one guy-Adam-messes up–because of Eve–and God throws everyone out of Eden? Tough crowd.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:42 am |
  3. Ches

    I took the quiz and scored an 8 out of 10.

    I am very Catholic and I respect all religions. I have friends who are Muslim and we have intellectual discussions about the similarities and differences of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

    I think it is important to KNOW why you believe in something as well as the background of your faith. It is also important to know things about other religions. It's very embarrassing that believers score lower than non believers. But I wanted to tell everyone that just because one believes in God doesn't mean that the person is closed minded or ignorant. It just depends on one's education.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:40 am |
  4. cassarit

    This is what happens when you allow a country to be overwhelmed by it's atheistic entertainment industry. After 70 or so years of beating it into people's heads that God is a lie and people who believe in him are idiots, it's amazing that so many Americans still believe in something. I'm not a moslem but I agree with them that people who profess contempt for religion should be silenced and punished.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:39 am |
    • asrael

      Can't wait until your buddies come into power...

      September 28, 2010 at 5:25 am |
    • catlover8367

      What is a moslem?

      September 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm |
    • catlover8367

      By that logic, you should be silenced and punished.

      September 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm |
  5. religion is hog.wash

    dear brainwashed sheep Fonz is the real gad!

    September 28, 2010 at 1:39 am |
  6. Muneef

    Hi there have enjoyed your conversations although wish to help you with any thing in religion but not sure of your true interest but if was in your place I would read the stories from Adam &Eve to Prophets and messengers of God stories with their own people and morals behind it, but look door the books who shows respect to them since some have been manuplited in disrespect to them and then were ever these stories are found in Bibles in Quran it doesn't matter only then you will know what is required from you since there is no other way to learn about the message of God sent to us through his messangers. And do not disbelieve in religion and God as the Anti-Christ army are leading you to. God Bless.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:39 am |
  7. 123131

    lulz americans care more about iq in religion than iq in the natural sciences...

    stupidest article ever

    September 28, 2010 at 1:39 am |
  8. aaarrghhh

    Feeling proud about answering 10 out of 10?

    Ummm, people who took the quiz - you do realize you only answered only 10 of the 32 questions that were on the full quiz??? You do know that, right??? No, I didn't think so. Not only do people fail or barely pass the questionnaire, they can barely read or comprehend the written article staring them in the face... I guess it's back to basic education boys and girls.

    BTW I failed one of the questions from the article – I never ever heard of Maimonides and had to Google that one.

    Equating religion knowledge with the level of general knowledge doesn't surprise me but how about asking a few questions like "quote me John 3:16" Surely, you've seen enough sports on TV to memorize that verse... 😦

    The full questionnaire can be found here, replete with instructions for the interviewers. NOW TELL ME YOUR SCORE – AND BE HONEST!
    http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/religious-knowledge-questionnaire.pdf

    September 28, 2010 at 1:38 am |
  9. Bubba Hotep

    This survey certainly seems less about theology and more about trivia surrounding the history and figures in religion. The character Cliff Claven from cheers would do good at these interviews, however, the intent and purpose and moral underpinnings of religion are barely even touched in this authors writing.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:37 am |
  10. Sam

    Religion is not an Athiest enemy, only the blind followers who think their religion is the only way.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:37 am |
  11. palermo

    Anyone with a 6th grade education should have been able to get all the answers right. Very scary.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:36 am |
  12. i nod my head

    "Religious education is an important factor that helps to explain knowledge – people who participated in youth groups get an average of two extra questions right," he said.

    THE RESULTS, SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  13. HotAirAce

    I think christian, maybe any religious, *leaders* would do better on this or most other tests than their flocks, 'cause I think the lead charlatans have shown us they know how to lie to, cheat, steal from and abuse their followers, and to make lots of money along the way.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  14. tony

    interesting

    September 28, 2010 at 1:33 am |
  15. Sage

    Wow, and there's what, at least a 50% college grad response here? 1. There is no ONE religion, 2. The US and it's NATO allies are fighting militant, armed extremists of this century's "Witches", there is no country called Islam, anymore than saying the Vatican City is in Rome, so Rome still has control of most of the world.

    Only for the sake of argument has anyone noticed Ireland at all? Catholics vs Protestants vs the British .... so they all look the same it's OK to bomb kids and others, ah ! I remember why no one gets upset, they are all white, and they speak English ... that must be different from REAL terrorists that kill themselves AND their neighbors ..... and they are of a culture that Americans haven't taken the time to try to understand. Too bad everything has to go super idiotic the moment someone says the R word. All this muck raking from a simple quiz that shows only that there was a quiz, and had nothing to compare it to ...... Well I guess if you have nothing better to do, than to shine your tennis shoes ... you might be on the verge of jumping out the basement window. Have at it but read the STORY first OK?

    September 28, 2010 at 1:32 am |
    • Unknown athiest

      Sage, your rant was bordering on illiterate. I assume you take your name for the herb as you surely do not show profound wisdom, and I would not like to think of you as a mentor for anyone.

      September 28, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  16. this is stupid

    wow, a whole 10 questions to try to determine if you know anything about a subject, how broad of a survey (not), how accurate of a test (not), how much margin of error (a lot),... I can make a ten question quiz for about any subject and make the general populace look ignorant on the subject,....

    details are more of a test taking thing to see if you can learn a set of provided points, not a knowledge measure,... but regardless,... even if you measure a general knowledge of subjects,... does it matter? just because one group values those details and history very highly,.... do others? does society in general get any benefit from further knowledge of the details???

    What a failure of an article

    September 28, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  17. Harry

    Most fo the people that follow religions only know what someone else tells them. I took the test and got all ten correct. Look at the history of religioms and you will see the true side, More people have been killed in the name of some god than any other reason. As for me I try to go by one rule and that is DO NO HARM.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  18. Don

    7/10 right and I haven't been to church in over 20 years. Not bad.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  19. Sam

    Everyone is born Athiest, we were brainwashed into religion.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:32 am |
  20. GB

    Absolutely nothing in this "religious" quiz would do a thing to show that I knew what was important or tolerant about religion. And that is the problem with any curriculum that would be politically correct enough to pass muster in today's schools. There is almost no way for a teacher to teach this without their bias showing though. It would be the same as trying to "teach" politics. And it would need to be taught at an extremely young age to get in before child biases took over. It just isn't feasible.

    Is it a lofty goal? Sure. But not feasible today.

    PS. I scored 10/10 and I'm an unaffiliated pagan. No one cares what you scored. The stuff in the quiz was minor trivia. There is no "true" religion. It is all a way for your brain to process concepts, whether from a higher power or simply the lack of one, using symbology to fill in gaps that your consciousness can't grasp.

    September 28, 2010 at 1:31 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.